I Don’t Care What Your 10 Most Influential Albums Were — Unless You’re Telling the Truth

The latest round of navel-gazing on Facebook while feigning humble reluctance is your Top 10 Most Influential Albums — post a different album every day for ten days and wax nostalgic about how this music takes you back to wherever you were at that point in your life — physically and emotionally. Reminisce. Take us with you.

This can be a fun exercise and interesting to share with others. I have only two cranky observations/objections.

  1. People pretending like they don’t want to do it. Oh, I normally never do these lists but so-and-so nominated me so …
    Ugh. Just admit that you think it sounds fun. We all like talking about things we’re passionate about. Don’t imply that permission from others is required to talk about your favorite music. And don’t imply that you’re just giving in to the pressure and you wish you didn’t have to but …
  2. People pretending like they’ve only been influenced by “good” musicians. So far I have only seen my friends post canonical albums music critics regard with authoritative reverence. I have yet to see anyone post Space Jam 2 or Britney Spears or whatever the New Kids on the Block album was that had most girls in my middle school wallpapering their lockers and bedrooms with their posters.

People seem to be posturing more than honestly admitting which albums they loved. We have become a culture of counter-conformists because no one wants to be basic — a term that didn’t exist when I was coming of age and bought the ol’ 12 CDs for a penny. If you’re not familiar with the CD-club relic of Americana, read “Columbia House Offered Eight CDs for a Penny, but Its Life Lessons Were Priceless” by Jack Hamilton.

I wish I could say I ordered ten Led Zeppelin albums, (no CODA) and two Metallica albums. But I didn’t. I didn’t even fall in love with Led Zeppelin until my mid-twenties. And I was too embarrassed to buy Metallica albums when I was in middle school because I thought girls weren’t supposed to like them. But fun fact — my first slow dance was at a school dance at my church to Nothing Else Matters. Dude was sweat-drenched and clinging to me like the last life raft from the Titanic. I learned what an erection was the next year in sex ed.

Early music history aside, as tempting as it is to define ourselves as discerning music appreciators the reality is that we all have some skeletons in our closet. Mine is mostly bones buried under some classics. I capped this list at high school so I could attempt to keep it to just ten albums. Without further ado and in no particular order:

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I still remember watching Stevie Nicks and Christie McVie spin around in a forest on my friend’s tv when I was a kid. (Upon rewatching it turns out they’re walking around a farm together.) My friend lived on Game Farm Rd and her hair was even longer than mine. It was gorgeous. I didn’t know anything about music (still really don’t) but I knew for damn sure that Stevie Nicks had the better voice. I remember wondering why the other lady was singing most of the song and the lady with the interesting voice was only chiming in with tell me lies … We had some of their albums but I was always so afraid of scratching my parents’ records that I only listened to the more communally-owned Fame soundtrack. I wasn’t terribly motivated to explore my parents’ music and mostly stuck with what they gave me and my sister until technology gave us the gift of the cassette tape.

The Mac, (as a friend calls them), has been a steady presence in my life, through my listening-to-Dreams-on-repeat phase to the summer I listened to Sara on repeat to the first time I saw them in concert 14 years later. My sister and I took my parents as a birthday present for my dad. I didn’t know she was pregnant at the time but I adore the fact that Fleetwood Mac was technically my nephew’s first concert. And I was astonished by their stage presence. They’re all in their late 60s, right? They might not have choreographed dance extravaganzas or pyrotechnics but they sang and played their instruments with what I can only describe as a joyful work ethic. The energy never stopped and I went home exhausted.

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The summer SWV made it big with Weak and I’m So Into You, my best friend and I had a crush on the same seminarian. He was still five years away from becoming a priest but he was only 28 and so. cool. And he deplored our taste in music. We begged him to play our new SWV cd on our way out to Rosary Lake, a gorgeous place for a youth group campout. And everyone knows there’s nothing quite like good music on a road trip in the summer. I was hoping this guy Peter would be my first kiss. He was tall and quiet and smart. Spoiler alert: he wasn’t. But I’m pretty sure he heard me and my best friend plotting it when we came back from brushing our teeth in the creek. It was awkward.

And in other white people news from that era, as much as we loved SWV, we were equally preoccupied with whether or not the singers were really sisters. And whether or not the one chick’s preternaturally long nails were real.

The priest-to-be was not preoccupied with any of this and he thought their music was repetitive pop crap. “There are no instruments! It’s all just sounds from a computer,” he seemed almost disgusted though he did think they had beautiful voices. “Get my Journey cd out of the glove compartment,” he told me. “Want to hear the song everyone was slow-dancing to when I was in high school?”

Open Arms is a familiar classic but I think the purest beauty of that album is Faithfully. I remember my friend’s parents holding hands on a dark night on the road trip home from a ski weekend. We were sitting in the middle seat of the minivan with her bratty brother behind us kicking our seat. Her parents held hands like newlyweds do when they turn around and walk down the aisle together for the first time as husband and wife, that celebratory hands up so many couples do for pictures. Triumph! We did it! Her parents held hands like that in the van for all of Separate Ways and Who’s Crying Now. I felt a fierce intimacy I couldn’t articulate in fifth grade. It was so intense I felt like just seeing it was intruding on it. I still feel that intensity and sincerity when I listen to this album.

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My best friend and I spent an entire summer singing along with these ballads. I was already partial to Peter Cetera’s voice after the Karate Kid II theme song. No one crooned about breakups and monogamy with equal measures of heartfelt sweetness quite like Chicago.

We used to sit in her room and croon along until we learned all the words. Apologies to her mom for that. But in our defense we also mixed it up with Leslie Gore’s Greatest Hits if that helped break up the monotony at all.

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The first cassette tape I ever owned made me feel things I’d never felt before. Giddy almost. I was swooning even though I was too young to have a crush on anyone, let alone be with someone.

But La Isla Bonita was so exotic and romantic. There was no internet when I was 7 nor were there any Spanish-speakers in my life yet. It wouldn’t be until freshman year in high school that I finally cracked her code — “He told you, ‘I love you.’”

Papa Don’t Preach is still a favorite. I couldn’t believe her boyishly short hair. I couldn’t believe her t-shirt said “Italians Do It Better” because I was pretty sure I knew what “it” was and nice girls wouldn’t brag about that. I didn’t know the song was about an unplanned pregnancy but I remember all the backlash. I knew that she was raised Catholic so I was shocked that she was always wearing a rosary. Or three. I didn’t understand why she was so deliberately controversial. I didn’t understand why she was trying to shock everyone. Her insatiable need to be the center of attention seemed childlike. But I understand now that reinvention is critical for longevity in the music industry.

Even though I still find her rosary-wearing intentionally disrespectful and her sex-obsession to reek of effort I was nevertheless pleased to read that we have the same confirmation name — Veronica, whose feast day is tomorrow. Get Into the Groove was the last song of hers I loved. But her cultural impact on any American girl from my generation is unmistakeable.

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Almost everything Mariah Carey did pre-breast implants/pre-Busta Rhymes carried me more than hypnotized me. Her songs were like my favorite bookstore or TV show. That melancholy world made sense. And she made brooding beautiful, celebratory. It was validating. I embraced my joy of singing with this album. Since I don’t sing well in any register let alone the whistle register I owe my family an apology for the entirety of 6th grade. But belting along with the then shy-seeming 19-year-old when I was 12 was a purposeful escape for me as an awkward tween.

I heard a critic describe her voice as ‘melismatic’. And according to the musicologists at Wikipedia: “Music of ancient cultures used melismatic techniques to induce a hypnotic trance in the listener, useful for early mystical initiation rites (such as Eleusinian Mysteries) and religious worship.

My devotion wasn’t religious but it was fervent. Her lyrics were as sappy as I was and the album kept me in good company. As would her next four or five albums.

Allow me to give some back story on what it was like when The Chronic hit suburban, mostly white, America — at least for a 13-year-old girl in Eugene, OR. I climbed trees with the neighbors and we played hide-and-seek at each other’s houses. Our neighborhood had 4th of July barbecue parties up and down the street — a street fittingly called Sunshine Acres. My childhood was safe and charmed and almost idyllic, full of blackberry-picking in the summers and Christmas baking and gift-wrapping in the winters with a fire burning in the fireplace. I truly didn’t know that there was anything wrong in my country. I knew that bad things had happened in the past because a Holocaust exhibit came to my elementary school when I was in the third grade. I read the Diary of Anne Frank. When I returned it our Armenian librarian she told me with a pain in her voice I can still feel, “nobody cares about what happened to the Armenians …” I was 9 at the oldest.

But I didn’t know anything violent was happening now. In California. Where my parents are from and I went most summers and the occasional Christmas. Where was Compton? Why was it so different from Whittier or my grandma’s back porch in Anaheim where we could smell her lemon trees and watch the Disneyland fireworks?

When I was in 8th grade some guy had a yellow discman. “Have Heather listen to it!” I heard someone yell when I walked into class. I was a known prude and they were right to assume they’d get a shocked reaction. I think this was the beginning of spoken tracks between songs and I was mortified by everything that merited the coveted forbidden fruit the parental advisory label quickly became. (Sorry, Tipper Gore. That whole thing really backfired.)

The Chronic came out around the same time as Boys in the Hood. There was an urgency and a chaos that most white kids in the suburbs had never experienced. But once it was commodified they consumed it with more enthusiasm than Hypercolor T-shirts and Air Jordans. It seemed that danger, when observed from the boring safety of the suburbs, was exciting.

Nothin’ But a G Thang dominated and defined the 90s like few other songs would. The Chronic as an entity unto itself was so many white kids’ way of trying to seem tougher than they really were. I think it also offered doughy Nintendo players another template for masculinity. The term wanksta wouldn’t hit the suburbs for another decade but I’m willing to bet the phenomenon began with The Chronic. I harbored no illusions of being cool or tough or dangerous in any way. But the sharp edge of this album still resonates with me in a way I can’t explain.

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I had an all-consuming crush on a kid who danced and sang and played guitar. He was a born performer and I thought he was amazing. He played this soundtrack the same summer my family went to Washington DC. It was my first time in a big city. Just like in the movie. And I associated this whole album with cool people dating in a big exciting city. I was knock-kneed with braces and big bangs. And this album helped me to imagine a cosmopolitan life much more glamorous than that of a book worm in the suburbs who’d never had a boyfriend. But I wanted one. And I wanted to dance with him to Johnny Gill and Mint Condition. I wanted late-night dates in the city, (any big city) playing Caron Wheeler while he drove.

In some ways it was my first glimpse of life outside my small-ish town. It was also the movie that prompted my little sister to call our green-eyed mother a ‘money-hungry hoe’. It didn’t go over well.

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Years after the enormously popular Dirty Dancing soundtrack came out they released More Dirty Dancing. It had all of the songs that actually made the movie feel like it did. This music was the actual lifeblood of this movie. Not the radio disease that was The Time of My Life. I fell hard for Solomon Burke’s Cry to Me. I instantly remembered being 13, not allowed to watch the movie, and watching it anyway. That song was as clear in my mind as the scene when Baby gave Johnny her virginity. I was shocked that she (gasp!) touched his butt.

I loved Love Man. I couldn’t look away from the schadenfreude of her bending and folding herself to this song — part Tin Man, part Cowardly Lion, while trying to learn how to actually dirty dance. The title came from somewhere after all.

I loved These Arms of Mine. Some Kind of Wonderful. Just like True Blue these songs made me sway. They filled me with a physical romance I didn’t even need a partner to experience.

I loved the mambo songs. They were the first seeds of the love I would later have for salsa dancing. I danced by myself to those two songs for eight years until I finally took a real salsa class.

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The summer Janet Jackson debuted her new abs my best friend and I decided that this was it — we were gonna get six-packs too. This was back in the VCR days. And we had a VHS tape of an Israeli fitness dude named Gilad. It was an hour long. And we did it every day the summer between middle school and high school. We also ate a lot of deep-fried Taco Time with sour cream and drank Coke but that’s neither here nor there. We were determined to get the flattest sexiest abs so we could wear tiny little half vests like shirts too. My best friend would often rewind it and do it a second time while I lied prostrate on the hot carpet, imagining all of the cool outfits I wanted to wear. Once she did it three times in a row while I napped for the second and third hour.

Back then MTV still played videos. And the hosts couldn’t stop talking about Janet’s sexy new image, her erotic new songs and those abs. Everyone seemed to forget that even when she was “chubby” and young she sang Pleasure Principle. That when she was still flashing her gleaming smile and sweet dimples she was already ripped and frolicking on the beach with heartthrobs. She didn’t go from Michael Jackson’s pre-pubescent little sister to a sex kitten overnight.

I was embarrassed by the brazen videos and the lyrics. But I loved it all.

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Cry For You was one of the most romantic songs from my 90s music box. I got a cassette single of it before the whole CD. I listened to it constantly and couldn’t wait until I met a guy who felt about me the way these four dudes did about some woman.

The creepy thing about a lot of R&B songs, as my buddy pointed out just to rain on my parade, was that there were always four or five dudes singing to one woman. “Hey girl,” my buddy would always make fun of me. “Me and these four other dudes, we’re gonna love you all … night … long. Except for the one with the deep voice. He’s just gonna stand there and talk. I don’t know why he has a cane, girl. But no one’s gonna love you like we do.” It also seems creepy to sing lyrics like Jodeci’s with your brother but that didn’t stop me from loving their music.

My buddy also said I’m disproportionately predisposed to like songs that start with a deep voice slowly groaning, Girrrl … He’s not wrong.

So there you have it. Three bands whose talent most any music fan can respect even if they don’t love the style or the vibe. A bunch of singers with good-to-great voices whose genre might not be your favorite. And two soundtracks that showcased Motown to New Jack to mambo. They’re not all gonna be Kennedy Center honorees but I’ll always have a fondness for their company during various phases of coming-of-age. And I’m inclined to write a follow-up post on the Top Ten Albums You Thought Were Cool in College.

Honorable Mentions from high school and prior:

  1. Take Me As I Am — I should make a separate list of all the 80s and 90s country music I loved — Faith Hill was one of my gateway drugs.
  2. Ooooooohhh … On the TLC Tip — again, Mom and Dad, I apologize. Specifically for blasting “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” on repeat. While the lyrics aren’t foul they’re nothing you want to hear your 13-year-old daughter singing. (I copied and pasted the oooh to make sure I put the right number of Os. But I corrected their incorrect ellipsis.)
  3. The Dick Tracy Soundtrack — I actually didn’t know this was a shitty movie that other people made fun of until I was an adult. But I loved Sooner or Later. Apparently sultry Prohibition-ish-era jazz ballads really resonated with 11-year-old me. I spent a lot of my Limewire 20s looking for the torch songs that inspired this style.
  4. The Original Dirty Dancing Soundtrack — I did not love this album. At all. But the songs from this album were so ubiquitous when I was an eight-year-old Girl Scout that I absorbed all the lyrics just like every other American girl likely did. It wasn’t until high school when I discovered the follow-up soundtrack that the dichotomy between the made-in-the-80s music specifically written for the movie and the made-in-the-60s music that matched the setting became so pronounced. The 80s schmaltz music breaks the coming-of-age-in-the-60s spell and shouldn’t have been in the movie.

Originally published at heathermedwards.com.

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