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Favorite Albums | An Introduction

by on November 18, 2011

For some strange reason, I was born to make lists. I always have to be working on one, and in fact I’m usually working on several of them at any given time. I’ve never been able to explain why before, but I think I recently stumbled upon the answer. I had been interested in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment since high school, but I never seemed to identify with my test result, which changed each time I took it. The first time I took the test, I was an ENFP. A few years later, I was an ENTP. A few years after that I was an ESFJ. I recall particularly not agreeing with that match. I don’t know why, but it actually kind of bothered me that I couldn’t get my MBTI personality type nailed down. Finally, last year I went onto Wikipedia and just started reading each of the sixteen entries to see if I would stumble upon my type. I settled on ISFP, but for some reason I felt I needed to take the test again to actually validate that estimation, and it said I was an INFP, a type I hadn’t considered. After researching the type on several websites, I came to accept that this was indeed my type.

The INFP entry on Personality Page has a passage that seems to particularly apply to my list-making tendency:

When an INFP has adopted a project or job which they’re interested in, it usually becomes a “cause” for them. Although they are not detail-oriented individuals, they will cover every possible detail with determination and vigor when working for their “cause”. When it comes to the mundane details of life maintenance, INFPs are typically completely unaware of such things. They might go for long periods without noticing a stain on the carpet, but carefully and meticulously brush a speck of dust off of their project booklet.

The truth is, I have been working on this particular list for a few years now. I was reading about Rolling Stone’s process for compiling their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and I decided I wanted to undertake a similar course of action. Rolling Stone began their process by asking lots of musicians and industry people to provide a list of their 50 favorite albums, which would supply a large base of albums to work with, as well as indicate those albums’ influence and lasting power. I thought to myself, “Hey, I can do that,” and came up a list of my 50 favorite albums, but I quickly realized it was pretty boring. It included lots of greatest hits and compilation albums, since I often was introduced to a band through their hits collections, and while that initial list was faithful to my many influences, it just wasn’t interesting enough to show anyone else. By including so many compilation albums I undermined the intent of the list, which was to showcase my favorite (actual) albums.

Sure, the Beatles’ 1 is about the greatest thing ever, but it’s a cop out to put it in competition with non-highlight albums. Imagine a World Series where the Yankees played the National League all-star team. Even though the Yankees would be loaded with stars, it still wouldn’t be a fair fight. It’s apples and oranges. Now that I think about it, I haven’t listened to a greatest hits album in quite some time. I feel like my interest in them kind of ran its course, since there’s no point in listening to just the hits once you reach a certain level of familiarity with them. Albums represent a moment in time, giving context and fleshing out a larger picture its singles — if there are any — cannot possibly provide. Rest assured, you won’t be seeing any greatest hits albums in my top 100.

When I launched The Attack Zone last July, I officially began composing this list, eying a drop date for November 19, exactly one hundred days away from my birthday. I wanted to reveal one album each day, writing some brief commentary and embedding YouTube clips of featured songs to further illustrate my selections. (Update: I missed the mark with the one-album-per-day thing; it took me seven months to complete all 100 posts instead of three. Also, I took the YouTube videos down and replaced them with Spotify modules at the top of just about every post. YouTube videos frequently get taken down for copyright infringement, and I don’t have the energy to constantly check to make sure all of the videos still work.) Well, the time has come, and the list is done. Just a heads up: it’s a doozy. I went all-out for this one, reaching pretty damn deep into artists’ catalogs. I used the money generated from my greatest songs of all time list to buy albums fairly cheaply on iTunes, filling a lot of holes.

I’ll still, however, be the first to admit that you can’t listen to everything, regardless of how hard you try. (And let’s not forget the immortal wisdom of Homer Simpson: “Trying is the first step towards failure. The lesson is, never try.”) There are only so many hours in a day, and ultimately you like what you like. My musical journey began as an 11-year-old in the summer of 1999. I still remember the first few albums I bought: The Offspring’s Americana, Blink-182’s Enema of the State, and Sugar Ray’s 14:59, in that order. I became a product of the so-called “post-grunge” scene, snatching up CD after CD until I grew weary of what was left of alternative rock, which I would later find out had gone down in flames before I had even started listening to it.

At some point when I was 15 or so, I decided to alter my approach to listening to music. Instead of trying to find the best of contemporary music, which was getting more pathetic by the minute even back in 2003, I decided, “Hey, why don’t I listen to the best of what’s been made, like, ever?” And so, for a good long while, I ignored contemporary music, and buried myself in the distant past. I became particularly fixated on classic rock, and fortunately for me, this was around the time Rolling Stone published their greatest albums list, which made it considerably easier to navigate unfamiliar territory.

I went to the library over and over, checking out albums that appear on their list. This was also around the time iTunes debuted, which let me rip CDs onto my computer. It really is amazing how the music industry has changed over the years, and by “changed” I mean collapsed like a house of cards. They blame it on piracy, but I don’t think there’s any question they’re the ones to blame. Their bread and butter was getting people to pay 15 bucks for an entire album when all people usually wanted was one song. When iTunes came along, people didn’t have to spend 15 dollars on an entire album anymore since they could get their favorite song for 99 cents.

It really doesn’t take a genius to piece that logic together, yet they refuse to adapt, and I have no idea why. My two cents? Stop making pop albums. Instead of investing time and money crafting bad songs to fill out an album, just focus on the singles, since that’s all most people care about anyway. You know what’s interesting about that idea? That’s how music used to be. Everything used to just be singles, for the most part. Somewhere along the line, the album became a necessity, and that worked just fine for the industry since people would spend money on the entire thing just to hear one song. That, however, was when media still existed on physical properties. The advent of the compact disc would change everything because the industry didn’t realize the importance of the digital technological shift. I believe I can explain why.

For the first ten to fifteen years of the compact disc’s existence, CDs could only be played, which became a Trojan horse since CDs were labeled and thought of as physical. Once their hidden ability to be ripped and burned was utilized, music instantly became virtual, never to be thought of as physical again. And once iTunes and the iPod came along, the industry was toast because it had no idea the virtual marketplace would replace, and not supplement, the physical marketplace.

I still remember the magic of the original Napster, which came along shortly after I started listening to music. Napster became the poster child for piracy, but even in its heyday, records were broken for first-week CD sales. I still remember when ‘N Sync sold a ridiculous 2.4 million copies of their album No Strings Attached in its first week in April of 2000. There was just a CD boom back then. They were always very good at establishing a prominent artist’s new album as some kind of event, and boy did they ever get people in the stores. I used to have great fun wandering around Tower Records (remember those?) or the huge CD section of Best Buy, which has been reduced to almost nothing.

Back then, the only way to find out about new music was the radio and MTV. These were the days before Wikipedia and social media where everything is always at your fingertips and has a rather scary habit of finding you instead of the other way around. Thanks to the Internet I always know exactly what I want before I buy something, and I’m more sure than ever that I’m making a good purchase. It’s amazing how things have changed, how music has become open source. You can listen to pretty much any song you want on YouTube, for instance. While mainstream music has atrophied, the independent scene has thrived thanks to all these additional channels. The Internet really has become the great equalizer. It may not be big business anymore, but you can get your music heard by somebody (e.g., Rebecca Black — forget that name yet?), which I find encouraging, if for no other reason than that it eliminates gatekeepers.

And really, if art is the important thing, isn’t getting your music heard the objective? It kind of reminds me of that movie Pan’s Labyrinth, where at the end there was a voiceover saying that Ofelia left behind “small traces of her time on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look.” I think music is like that in many ways. Part of the fun in discovering music is also uncovering new ways to look for it. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s pretty ridiculous, this list I’ve made. Yet I feel like, in some strange way, this was something I had to do. It’s hard to explain. It’s not enough for me to just listen to music. I have to evaluate it and order it. And I think, more than anything else, I felt it was time for me to think about where I stand. Musically, I mean.

I’m always constantly absorbing this or that, and after a while you can’t see the forest for the trees. This list is just my attempt to keep things in perspective. It’s hard to imagine the idea of this list making any sense to anyone else. Then again, there aren’t many people like me, with INFPs comprising a mere 2% of the population, and male INFPs an even slighter 1.5%. Chances are, you’re wondering if I’ve gone completely insane.

As far as philosophers go, they don’t get much older than Socrates, who famously advised that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” And while I normally hate using broad philosophical statements in essays as personal as this one, it happens to apply reasonably well here. I think, most of all, I just wanted to look back on the chapters of my life, using these albums as framing devices in my own musical narrative. It’s so rare to come across someone who doesn’t listen to music. It seems to play a part in everyone’s coming-of-age process. In fact, so much of music is generational. I’ll always identify with ‘90s music more than anything else, and you’ll see quite a few albums from that decade present on my list. The decade I identify with the least is easily the 1980s. I was born in 1988, so I remember exactly zero from the decade, but it’s like Austin Powers says in Spy Who Shagged Me: “All that happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s was a gas shortage and A Flock of Seagulls. That’s about it.” (Now that I think about it, Austin Powers is also a generational example.)

I’ve actually been reading a lot recently about a theory about generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe. It’s pretty long-winded and complicated so I won’t go into too much detail, but basically there are four types of generations, with each generation spanning roughly 20 years, and each entire generational cycle (called a saeculum – Latin for “a long human life” or “a natural century”) lasts roughly 80 years. They have been able to document this cycle repeating for centuries. It’s a pretty compelling theory, to say the least, and it’s worth a look when you’ve got the time. I mention it because it provides important context. It explains why a major crisis occurs every 80 years or so — 9/11 and the war on terror and subsequent economic meltdown, the Great Depression and World War II, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the Glorious Revolution, etc. — and also why a major spiritual awakening occurs every 80 years or so and occurs right smack in between crises.

The last awakening was during the ‘60s and ‘70s, which featured rock & roll and pop music at its height. There’s a reason why music actually was better back then. We as a people were experiencing an artistic renaissance.

I would also like to illustrate one more key ingredient this generational theory presents, which is that generations born during a crisis are referred to as the artist archetype. (Each type of generation adheres to an archetype, you see.) The generation born during the Great Depression and World War II includes: all of the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, James Brown, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, B.B. King, Brian Wilson, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, even Quincy Jones and Tina Turner. (Ironically, this generation has been dubbed the “Silent” generation, a reference to their harsh childhood conditions.)

I bring this up because we are currently living through a crisis, with no end to it in sight. (Although history indicates it should end in about ten years.) If everything goes according to this theory (it was first published in 1991, and 9/11 arrived right on schedule ten years later to kick off this cycle’s crisis), then kids being born right now, during this crisis, are going to be the next generation of great artists. Take another look at those names I provided above. Remember when I was talking about keeping things in perspective? Well, we still have about thirty years until the next awakening. Maybe it’s time to put more money into arts programs at schools. Roughly 30 years from now, what we know as rock and roll and popular music could be replaced completely by some kind of new musical art form adopted by the masses. It isn’t that hard to fathom, if you really think about it hard enough.

Popular music, on a grand scale, has been in decline for quite some time, the industry once propped up by a thriving artistic scene decades ago quickly going the way of the dodo due to their inability to fully comprehend the ramifications of allowing listeners to access the digital marketplace.

It’s also interesting to note that the music industry’s own crisis happens to perfectly coincide with the larger societal crisis. I still remember where I was sitting when I first heard a plane had hit one of the towers. I was thirteen years old, barely an adolescent when it happened. Everything that happened before that day just seems so much brighter and sunnier to me now. I can remember trying to understand how the world was going to change forever that day, but I don’t think I could have ever anticipated just how dark the cloud we would live under would be. I also think we all underestimated just how damaging 9/11 would prove to be to children like me. We were forced into adulthood that day, in a way. The world was brought to us, shattering the cocoon we weren’t supposed to emerge from for another (in my case) five years. That we would invade Iraq under false pretenses would further damage our innocence.

I can still remember watching CNN in the days after 9/11 and hearing them talk about how we were going to get Osama bin Laden any day. By the time we actually got him, almost ten years later, it hardly seemed like a victory (at least to me — the people who celebrated in the streets across the country may beg to differ), given the toll our search had taken: two wars — at least one of which has turned out to be a complete waste — and a crashed economy.

I mention these events because I have been forced to evaluate the circumstances in which I came across the albums on my list. Behind every album is a story of not just how I reacted to it, but how I came across it in the first place. Like I said before, this list is an exercise in perspective, more than anything else. And perspective is something you lack when you’re young, particularly when you’re the age when things have the largest impact on you. I don’t know if there’s any such thing as a class in perspective, but I wish I had been able to take it. Learning about the history of rock and jazz helped put things into perspective for me musically, but more than anything, picking up the guitar really helped me sort things out. I became something of a blues fanatic for a while. I suppose I’ll end up expanding on this in individual album entries.

And so for the past several months I’ve been listening to all my favorite albums, slowly but surely shaping this list. It was a daunting task, to say the least. I’ve basically been in the same mode of listening for months now. Every time I wanted to listen to music, I would limit myself to albums up for consideration. I can imagine most people growing weary of this after a little while, but for me it comes kind of naturally. (I suspect it has something to do with INFPs always seeking to be on a meaningful path.) And now the list is done. Sure, there are some albums I didn’t really get to and there are others that I left off the list that are important but don’t mean as much to me personally, but that’s the nature of one of these lists. These are just my favorites. You may question my decision to unveil each album one day at a time for 100 days, but it’s more fun that way. Plus, it keeps people from skipping over the entire list to see what’s number one. (Bastards.) So kick back, relax, and enjoy.