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Personal Canons: Other Albums That Mean the World to Me

7 October 2006

Critics debate the usefulness, or uselessness, of canons all the time. I only care about personal canons, about what albums really mean something to individual people who care about music.

Many of my favorite albums of all time are the same that you’ll see on all those ‘best’ or ‘most important’ albums of all time lists: Revolver, Ramones, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, etc. But there’s plenty more albums less often recognized as ‘classic’ that I care about just as much, or more. Here’s 8 of those, chosen from a sea of hundreds. Consider this not as an application for canon membership for these, or even a claim that they’re integral to music history, or whatever….but simply as a spotlight on music integral to my own history, music that has sounded so good to me for so long, and thus carries with it so much feeling and importance for me.

1. Jonathan Richman – Jonathan Richman (Rounder)

To me this album captures the essence of Jonathan Richman’s talent in the purest form, in a spare setting. There’s his love for the history of rock/pop music (“Fender Stratocastor”), his traveller’s taste for other cultures (“Que Reste-t-ll De Nos Amours?”), his sense of humor (“I Eat With Gusto, Damn! You Bet”), his open-hearted romantic side (“Closer”). And there’s two songs that so sum up his optimistic, humanistic life philosophy better than anything else he’s recorded: “A Mistake Today For Me” (as in, “make a mistake today for me / go for broke”) and “Miracles Will Start to Happen” (as in, “when we love again / miracles will start to happen”).

2. Prince – Around the World in a Day (Paisley Park)

I can’t launch an argument for this album’s importance; it’s certainly a flawed experiment in many ways. But it’s always fascinated me, since 1985, when I was 11 or 12. Maybe at first I was drawn to the colorful cover, but it also was the strange leaning towards rock and psychedelia but never really getting there that Prince does on songs like “Paisley Park” and “Tamborine.” It’s really overblown at times, but what Prince album worth caring about isn’t?

3. Joe Ely – Letter to Laredo (MCA)

Joe Ely grew up in a Texas border town, so maybe that’s why this album has a personal quality to it that, to me, his other also great albums don’t have. The magic here is especially within the first five tracks (the first ‘side’), which musically and lyrically paint these rugged, romantic portrait vivid in place and character. “Ranches and Rivers” contains one of my favorite lyrical images ever, one I could daydream about for hours, for no obvious reason: “some men could bring you ranches and rivers / with fences of barbed wire / to keep out the cold.” He, the song’s protagonist, has neither of those to offer, just love, “and a fire / more precious than gold.” This whole album has that fire, and it’s so incredibly precious for it.

4. Unrest – Isabel Bishop EP (4AD)

They would crispen and clean their sound soon after, but the first time I saw Unrest play live they had such a gloriously noisy sound. To me this EP captures that, as it’s what they were supporting at the time. Really though, it captures that and so much more, containing as well one of the prettiest ballads Mark Robinson would ever sing, “Isabel.”

5. Paul Simon – The Rhythm of the Saints (Warner Bros)

Paul Simon’s an incredibly pretentious lyricist – his lyrics are never as deep as he imagines them to be. Yet in the right setting, his music touches me like no other. Graceland and this album might be the ones when he took from other cultures for his own purposes, but hasn’t that sort of bastardization led to interesting music throughout history? It certainly does here.

6. Big Daddy Kane – It’s a Big Daddy Thing (Cold Chillin’)

Lately I keep reading reviews of hip-hop albums where the writer complains that all the rapper does is brag and boast…what world are they living in? Bragging has always been essential to rap music. Big Daddy Kane could brag like nobody else, and sound smooth, and, weirdly, humble while doing it. This album covers all points, though, from social uplift (“Children R the Future”) to raw skills (“Warm It Up, Kane”).

7. Lou Reed – Magic and Loss (Sire)

I know I set up that it’s all about subjectivity, but for real – this is Lou Reed’s best album, hands down. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a musician taking a theme and exploring it in depth in one album. This one’s all about death, of course, which really means that it’s about all aspects of life. There’s little of the self-importance so much Lou Reed music has, and so many rough yet poignant moments.

8. Looper – Up a Tree (Sub Pop)

Stuart David’s time in Belle and Sebastian means that Looper will also be a footnote, always considered a ‘side project’. And that’s a crying shame, considering what a unique point of view this album has – a mixture of idealism, futurism, nostalgia, and playfulness. And Up a Tree was only the start – it holds a magical place for me, but The Geometrid, The Snare, and the MP3 EPs they’ve offered for free download do too.

This is just the start, but get me going and I’ll never stop. There’s a crazy amount of positive memories and associations inside the mind of a music lover.

 

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