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  • Writer's pictureJohn M Donovan

15 Influential Albums or, I Don't Have to Follow Your Silly Game Rules, Facebook

I was recently chosen to participate in one of those Facebook games where you post ten albums that had an impact on you—one album cover per day, with no explanation, and then you pick a different person to list their albums every day so it goes on and on exactly like a pyramid scheme except that there’s no clergyman at the top making all the money.

Around the same time I realized I hadn’t posted to this blog in more than a year. I have nothing but kudos for anyone who can blog every day or even twice a week, but apparently I can’t even handle the breakneck pace of annual posting.

So, because I wanted both my regular blog readers to know I’m not dead and because I found the rules of the album game too constraining, here are 15 albums, all in one day, all with some explanation.

15. The Playmates, Cuttin’ Capers

I don’t remember my parents ever buying an album, and somewhere in my teens I realized I couldn’t even imagine them buying one. Still, somehow in the early 1960s they managed to amass a small LP collection that included some John Philip Sousa marches, some torch songs by Pearl Bailey (who looks pretty sultry on the cover), “The Cat Came Back and Other Fun Songs” by John Greenway, and this gem, by the Playmates. Intrigued by the cover (and completely unaware at age 7 that the paper dolls were all curvaceous women), I played “Cuttin’ Capers” on an old Kenmore phonograph and found myself enjoying the band’s quirky sense of humor. From the antiquated sexism of “Women Drivers” to the wacky voices in “Bag of Sand” (essentially a joke set to music) to the way-over-my head “Modern Science,” the Playmates did not take themselves too seriously and thus planted the seed for my eventual love of Spike Jones and Weird Al. My dad once happened to overhear me listening to the song “Egypt,” which contained the lines “…in Egypt, when a fellow dies/They lay him on a great big slab, right before your eyes/Then 16 beautiful Egyptian women raise him overhead/And if that fellow doesn’t rise, you know darn well he’s dead.” Dad said he wasn’t sure if this was something I should be listening to, but heck, I thought it was hilarious without the innuendo.

14. Many Moods of Henry Mancini

OK, I take that back. I can imagine my parents buying one album because this is the one I know they bought. It was an eight-record set—possibly a Time-Life Collection, now that I think of it—and mostly instrumental, with classics like “Baby Elephant Walk,” the themes from Peter Gunn and the Pink Panther, and so on. But here’s why it means so much to me. The day: New Year’s Eve 1979. The place: the Donovan living room outside Hillsboro, Indiana. I was 19 and had no plans to ring in the new year, so my friends John Kester and Lindsey Dickerson, both seniors at Fountain Central and two of the funniest people I’ve ever known, came over to hang out. Our stereo not only had a turntable and an 8-track player but two microphone jacks that let you record on blank 8-track tapes—so that’s what we did that night. We put on side one of record one of the Many Moods of Henry Mancini, then improvised comedy bits to whatever the music reminded us of. Seems like most of them were noir detective pieces, with Kester doing a low breathy voice whenever we needed a femme fatale. I’d love to go back in time and find that 8-track.

13. Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie

I can’t remember if I knew of Buffy Sainte-Marie before her appearance on The Midnight Special in 1974, the one where she wore a top with no sides and the cameraman practically crawled inside it with her, but hey, if that’s what it took to get introduced to this brilliant and socially-conscious singer-songwriter, it was worth it. My mom didn’t care for this album (BSM’s vibrato, she said, sounded too mournful) but I loved every song and listened to it (and “Best of, Vol. 2”) over and over while I was playing Strat-O-Matic baseball in the basement. Buffy Sainte-Marie paved the way for me to read and be moved by Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in the early 1980s, and I was thrilled to get to see her in concert in Des Moines a few years ago.

12. 24 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits

I had eclectic musical taste in high school, though of course I realize that one man’s eclectic is another man’s weird. This was another album I listened to over and over after my dad hooked up speakers in the basement. It’s pretty likely that I started looking into Hank Williams after learning that my mom had seen him in concert at Decatur’s Kintner Gym in 1952, but when I did I found myself entranced by the raw honesty of his voice and lyrics. Hank died at the age of 29 but sounded much older and wiser on even his earliest recordings. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was my favorite HW song until I found out about “Lost Highway,” and somewhere in my late uncle Lum Tipsword’s collection of videos is one of me lip-syncing to “Lovesick Blues.”

11. Various Artists, British Gold

There are probably a couple thousand albums called British Gold, but this one is the one my brother and I put on most often when we were playing ping-pong in the basement (8-track, of course, so we never had to go upstairs). This album covers a wide range of British Invasion hits, from Freddie and the Dreamers’ goofy “I’m Telling You Now” to Derek and the Dominoes’ seven-minute version of “Layla” (complete with the trippy slow section) to Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ straight-up rockin’ “Game of Love” to the post-Fontana Mindbenders’ lovely “Groovy Kind of Love” to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” (which, more than any other song on the album, led me to a deeper exploration of British rock). There’s also a quaint version of “Ain’t She Sweet” by Tony Sheridan and the Beatles. Tony Sheridan went on to have a nice singer/songwriter career of his own and probably got tired of hearing people ask what ever happened to that one backup band he had. Speaking of Freddie and the Dreamers, give yourself 10 cool points if you can do the Fred.

10. Loudon Wainwright III, Album III

This might be the only album I ever owned on 8-track, LP, and CD. (The only cassettes I ever bought in my life were blank ones for recording my groovy mixtapes.) My introduction to LW3 actually came from my grandma, who noted one Sunday afternoon that she’d heard a song on the radio about a dead skunk in the middle of the road. A conversation along the lines of “What’s the world coming to?” undoubtedly ensued, but when I discovered the album with “Dead Skunk” on it I was pleased to find that the other songs were even better. I played the hell out of this album and still have most of it memorized. Every song is a gem on this one. “New Paint” remains one of my favorite songs about the apprehension of first dates, “Drinking Song” contains the wonderful line “Drunk men stagger and drunk men fall/Drunk men curse and that’s not all/Quite often they will urinate outdoors,” and “Red Guitar” deals with the ironic aftermath of an artist’s frustrating creative block. I’ll still be listening to this when they put me in the home, assuming they send my iPod with me.

9. Jefferson Airplane, Flight Log

Essentially a retrospective of songs by the Airplane, Hot Tuna, Paul Kantner, and Jorma Kaukonen (who gets his own entry on this list a little later), Flight Log is an album I pulled out of the cut-out bin back in my college days. (“What’s a cut-out bin?” today’s youth might inquire. Well, kids, record companies used to cut a little notch in the cover of albums they were deleting from their catalog. Sometimes they really were deleting those albums and sometimes not, but record-company pricing shenanigans are beyond the scope of this blog. Check out the Music Weird blog entry for 9/1/14 for more information.) Anyway, these cut-out albums were heavily discounted and displayed in their own bins at stores like 3D in Crawfordsville’s Boulevard Mall. Today’s youth will never know the frustration of rooting through these bins hoping to find something that isn’t crap, but neither will they know the joy of discovering a brilliant collection like Flight Log.

8. Manhattan Transfer, Bop Doo Wopp

I’ve loved the Transfer ever since their summer replacement TV show back in 1975. Their nostalgic tunes, tight harmonies, and easygoing camaraderie held my attention, and in 1980 their appearance at the Indiana State Fair was my first concert ever (Martin Mull opened and the sound system did not do him any favors). I could have put the Transfer’s debut album or a greatest hits package on this list, but Bop Doo Wopp captures the group at its joyous best.

7. Amazing Blondel, Evensong and Fantasia Lindum

I’d call myself a person who believes in second chances, although I’d make an exception if the Cardinals ever even considered hiring Mike Matheny as manager again. My first impression of the British “progressive folk” band Amazing Blondel was not good. It was, in fact, horrible. Seems like the Wabash College radio station was giving away albums they didn’t play anymore, and I grabbed one by Amazing Blondel because, well, it was free. Put it on the turntable later that day and thought it was the blandest, slowest-moving, most soulless music I’d ever heard. I spent the next 20 years haunted by the memory of that record, but then, upon stumbling onto an article about Amazing Blondel and reading that their music hearkened back to the music of the Renaissance, I thought “That sure doesn’t sound like the album I listened to.” I found this CD—a collection of their albums from 1970 and 1971—and gave it a listen. Holy cow. It was beautiful. The songs were new but played on lutes, recorders, and other period instruments, and I couldn’t stop listening. My favorite cuts are “Spring Season,” “Old Moot Hall,” and “Under the Greenwood Tree” but the whole CD is fantastic and will make you think you’re enjoying the house band at an ale-house in Elizabethan England. I don’t know what was on that free record from the college station, but I’m going to assume it was a different band’s LP that had been slipped into the wrong cover.

6. Frank Sinatra, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning

When I was growing up, all I knew about Frank Sinatra was that he was a guy in a tux who showed up on TV now and then to chat with Dean Martin or Johnny Carson. At some point between then and my 40s (or thereabouts) it hit me that the Chairman deserved every good thing that had ever been said about his voice—and his ability to inject a song’s meaning right into your veins. This bittersweet album—recorded in the aftermath of Sinatra’s separation from Ava Gardner—is great late-night listening, and it isn’t hard to imagine yourself walking down that same blue-tinted street on the cover.

5. Gordon Lightfoot, Gord’s Gold

I can’t think of another album that made me want to be the performer more than this one. I wanted to grow the beard, let my curls fall where they may, learn guitar, and sing in that intimate rich baritone to one person or a thousand. (I’ve tried to learn guitar on a couple of different occasions and can’t get past the F chord.) This album consists of new versions of 24 of GL’s greatest hits, so it plays like a concert without the annoying applause between cuts. Gordon Lightfoot tells amazing stories through his music and makes every one hit home. “Song for a Winter’s Night,” for instance, plops you down in a snowbound cabin with a love letter. “Steel Rail Blues” reminds you of every foolish mistake you’ve ever made to sabotage a relationship. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” is a seven-minute masterpiece that starts in prehistoric times and ends with the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Bob Dylan once said that when he heard a Gordon Lightfoot song he wanted it to go on forever. I couldn’t agree more, and I would add that nobody captures the allure of the north quite like Mr Lightfoot.

4. Jethro Tull, Songs from the Wood

If Amazing Blondel is the house band at an ale-house in Elizabethan England, then Jethro Tull is playing selections from this album at a less reputable, more rocking place down the street. Or maybe it’s the other way around. All I know is that John Kester introduced me to “Songs from the Wood” (sometime after I introduced him to “The Many Moods of Henry Mancini,” so it’s possible I’m still in his debt) and that back when my car had a CD player I would listen to it a dozen times or more before switching it out. While Tull doesn’t use authentic Renaissance instruments like Blondel, the songs take you back to Really Olde England with forest spirits, mossy cottages, outdoor ribaldry, and hard-working serfs. “Ring Out, Solstice Bells” is a Christmas song for an ice-cold cloudless Christmas Day, while “Fire at Midnight” (with the lines “Me, I'll sit and write this love song/As I all too seldom do/Build a little fire this midnight/It's good to be back home with you”) is one of the warmest songs ever recorded.

3. Jorma Kaukonen, Blue Country Heart

Jorma Kaukonen is just one of my favorite musicians, and certainly the one I liked for the longest time without knowing how to pronounce his name. If I hadn’t heard Garrison Keillor say it on a promo for an upcoming “Prairie Home Companion,” I might still not know. (If you’re in the same boat, it’s YOR-ma COW-kƏ-nƏn.) Anyway, Jorma K was the lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane (and came up with the name), founded Hot Tuna with Jack Casady, released an amazing solo album called “Quah,” and eventually created the Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, where he invites musicians to spend a week, improve their chops, and play with quite an assortment of folk, rock, and bluegrass royalty. His autobiography, Been So Long, is an honest and humble account of a life he seems quite grateful for. Released in 2002, “Blue Country Heart” is a collection of old country and blues songs perfectly suited for Jorma’s voice and finger-picking style. It’s absolutely fun to listen to from start to finish, from the hobo’s lament of “Waiting for a Train” to the sly innuendo of “Tom Cat Blues” to the pre-New Deal protest of “Bread Line Blues.” “Blue Country Heart” won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album, so occasionally the Grammys get something right.

2. The Roches

Back when I didn’t fast-forward through the musical guests on SNL (he said in a curmudgeonly manner), the show used to surprise viewers with amazingly talented performers who were nowhere near the mainstream. Leon Redbone. Keith Jarrett. Sun Ra, for crying out loud. In November 1979, on a show hosted by Bea Arthur, the Roches (three sisters named Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy Roche) made their debut and made me a fan for life. They performed “Bobby’s Song” and an a cappella version of the Hallelujah Chorus that night, and on the following Monday I set out in search of anything they might have done. I don’t know if their self-titled first album hadn’t been released yet or if Morning Glory Music (Crawfordsville’s record store and head shop) just hadn’t received it, but it took me weeks to get my hands on a copy. It was worth the wait. From the opening track, essentially an introduction to the group called “We,” it’s clear that the Roches are in a category of their own and that they couldn’t care less about pop music trends. I once read an interview in which Maggie Roche said “People always tell us that we’re swimming upstream, but we don’t know any other way to go.” Besides the first cut, highlights from this album include “The Train” (a slice-of-life from one’s morning commute), “The Troubles” (pre-flight concerns about a trip to Ireland, including the fabulous line “Please don’t let my guitar/Topple off onto the runway”), and “O Mr Sellack” (a sweet and funny song about humility). Side note: My cousin Lisa Tipsword-O’Daffer was equally enthralled by The Roches’ appearance on SNL and became a loyal fan as well. We got to see them perform and meet them in Iowa City in 2007, and they were nicer than we even imagined.

1. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks

I’ve always said that if I hadn’t discovered Bob Dylan I never would have written any songs. This might or might not be true, and I could probably amend it to say I never would have written any good songs. Point is, it was a chance hearing of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” (on the radio! A nine-minute Dylan track on the radio!) that led me to this album and to Dylan himself. Like the Sinatra album mentioned earlier, “Blood on the Tracks” is a breakup album, but it explores every emotion associated with a busted relationship—anger, forgiveness, revenge, and a detached amusement. Dylan himself said he couldn’t understand why the album was so popular: “It’s hard for me to relate to…people enjoying that kind of pain.” But it touches a chord in me. The songs are tightly written and honestly sung, and there’s something beautiful and touching about the whole package.

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