In the spirit of all these “ten albums that influenced your musical tastes” things I’ve been seeing people post during isolation, I got to thinking about my own and couldn’t reasonably break it down to just ten. Then, seeing the wild disparity between some of the entries I chose to take some more time to look at the context that lead to each one being influential.
So! Below I’ve charted sixteen albums worth of influence, each with a link to the album on Spotify, starting from the very first cassette tape in the early 90s right up into the digital age, in chronological order of their influence on me. I don’t think there’s any notable gaps, but there’s some interesting leaps.
THE LION KING — SOUNDTRACK
Way back in a time when my brother and I had twin Walkman cassette player knockoffs that a relative had brought us back from a trip to China, we each had a very limited selection of tapes (read: one or two) plus the limited FM radio dial that was built into them. I would steal this cassette from his room at night and listen to it as I went to sleep and then put it back the following morning. King of Pride Rock still gives me chills, and we’ll see echoes of Be Prepared re-emerge later in this list. Actually, looking ahead, a lot of the orchestration from this soundtrack will be a big influence.
ON RE-LISTEN: Still fantastic. It’s THE LION KING soundtrack, what more is there to say?
GREEN DAY — INSOMNIAC
I was in year seven (1997) when I discovered this CD that someone had left under a desk in the geography classroom, and rather than hand it in I decided to take it home and listen to it a few times. I never returned it. I’d listened to the previous Green Day album (DOOKIE) a lot, having borrowed it on cassette from a friend across the street, but this one hooked me. It was kinda messy and blunt and didn’t take itself very seriously. I loved the band right up until Time of Your Life became so oversaturated that it ruined their NIMROD album for me entirely, then the band, and so I moved on.
ON RE-LISTEN: A complete transportation to a time of sitting on the roll-out mattress beside my bed and playing a pirated copy of TOMB RAIDER on my laptop. The two are permanently linked together in my mind, even though I think I was playing the first HALF-LIFE more at the time. It’s a heavy dose of nostalgia, but my taste lies elsewhere these days.
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS — BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGICK
There used to be CD clubs in magazines that my mum would order from (Five for $80! What a bargain!), and every once in a while I would get to pick something to add to my then-modest collection of discs. I didn’t know much about RHCP at the time, but coming from the simplicity of the bands I had listened to up until this point there was a virtuosity to John Frusciante and Flea’s playing that just blew my mind open with how dynamic a four-piece band could be. Inspired, this would be the first time that I decided to pick up the guitar and then discovering that everyone and their dog had had the same idea and was already better than me, I decided to try the bass instead. I don’t like the band much anymore (over-saturation and diminishing returns post-CALIFORNICATION) but one of my earliest/fondest festival memories is from the Melbourne Big Day Out when they played pre-D-barrier security system and I crowdsurfed right to the front of the stage, over the trenches and could just run around to the back and work my way through the crowd to do it over and over again for the whole set.
ON RE-LISTEN: Still great! Retrospectively a lot of the content is wildly inappropriate for how old I was, but it turns out it had gone completely over my head anyway. CALIFORNICATION is likely the big one people remember the Chilis for but this album is weirder, more rough and more interesting. And these basslines are hot.
INCUBUS — MAKE YOURSELF
Of all the albums on the list, this was the one I was most reticent to revisit because it is completely, utterly associated with an era of highschool that even 20 years later I still have distaste for. Sure, there were other, more embarrassing bands that 16yo me was into (*cough*LimpBizkit*cough*) and better albums that were more important launchpads into later musical taste (go and listen to Marilyn Manson’s MECHANICAL ANIMALS right now), but really this album is so overwhelmingly evocative of a really specific period of hormonal teenage angst that I couldn’t NOT include it. Moreso, it was on the first round of this tour that I first tried meeting a band before their show, a show that I was too young to buy tickets for.
SIDEBAR: That venue got burned down for the insurance money about five years later. “Officially” it was an electrical fault, but we all knew. It’s been a parking lot for the much nicer Palace Theatre next door ever since.
Never did end up meeting Incubus, but the Aussie guy from their support act (whose name and band I have entirely forgotten) was really friendly and was a first step in demystifying musicians into actual, regular humans rather than abstracted, magical things that existed on the television or in my headphones. As a result of this I once submitted a bunch of Incubus lyrics for an English poetry assignment wanting to see how they would fare and the teacher was so impressed by “my” work that she made me read them out in front of the class who, to their credit, didn’t snitch even though every one of them knew exactly what I had just pulled.
This band was also responsible for me wanting white-boy dreadlocks for a short spell, something I thankfully never followed though on.
ON RE-LISTEN: Brandon Boyd’s vocals are huge! Otherwise it’s pretty standard late 90s/early 00s guitar rock with a solid dose of the generic pedal effects and record scratching that everyone was doing at the time. It’s fine, kind of bland but I didn’t cringe as hard as I thought I would. Battlestar Scralatchtica is probably the best track and it’s the least like the rest of the album and, ironically, lyricless.
TOOL — LATERALUS
Here we go. This was a big one. I’d heard concept albums, I’d listened to Pink Floyd and The Beatles, but the first time I ever listened to this album I was completely wiped out by just how dense 79min of audio could be. I’d heard songs from ANIMA and thought they were pretty cool, but LATERALUS really drove home how much the band focuses on making a complete experience across a whole album. I bought this on a visit to the city where my dad was living at the time and it absolutely ruined other music for me for years afterwards. Danny Carey’s drumming on this album is INSANE. IN. SANE. There’s recursive use of irregular time signatures, occult magick principles of mathematics applied to musical theory, songs about philosophy and psychology, songs that last for more than ten minutes apiece and flow and roll and thunder out across the ether. Their music videos are weird and dark and complex. More than anything I’d ever listened to, this felt huge – it’s heavy and introspective without being angsty which was where a lot of other stuff that tries to be complicated tends to fall down for me. I still remember learning the basslines by rote with a friend so we could play along to this album in their garage.
I’ve seen them live five times and it’s a transcendent experience, as any TOOL fan will tell you, it’s nigh-spiritual. I remember taking a girlfriend at the time to their arena show on my birthday, the first time I’d been to a concert in that fashion. She liked one bit because it had pink lights. It didn’t work out.
ON RE-LISTEN: Still epic as fuck. A rollercoaster through the psyche, delicate and subtle one moment then rising like a wave and slamming you against a rock the next. I thought I preferred 10,000 DAYS but damn, maybe this is actually the best one.
RADIOHEAD — KID A
It might surprise people who know me how late I entered into the Radiohead game, given how much I absolutely adore them, and that my path through their catalogue was winding and strange: I actually got OK COMPUTER last! Why? Because I’d already gotten very much into HAIL TO THE THIEF (a spontaneous gift from the next girlfriend after the one who hadn’t appreciated TOOL) and THE BENDS and it seemed like something I knew I was going to love so why not try out all the other ones first? A friend who lived at the end of the street suggested I borrow his copy of KID A, and hooboy, I fell into it.
In the some ways LATERALUS had primed me for these sorts of soundscapes but this was something else entirely. I’d listened to electronic music before but now I got it.
I noticed that the back part of the CD case had an image that I could see through the hole in the centre, hidden by the black part where the disc clipped in, so I pulled the case apart and found a 12 page hidden art booklet. Those were was only put in during initial pressings. My friend had no idea it had been there. It felt like a secret treasure.
A few years later Radiohead were due to play the final date of their world tour in Melbourne on the eve of my 20th birthday, and then Thom Yorke’s voice gave out and they had to cancel the show on the morning they were due to play. It took me 8 years for the next chance to see them live (and only then because my brother donated his ticket), and that one missed opportunity spurred me through my 20s to go and see every live act I possibly could for fear that I might never get to see them in person. This will come up again later.
ON RE-LISTEN: I revisit this from time to time, even if I do listen to more of Thom Yorke’s solo stuff or other Radiohead albums (especially IN RAINBOWS) more often since developing the taste for his weird electronic output. What a beautiful album. Haunting and melancholic. I still know how to play half of these songs on guitar. Speaking of which…
PIXIES — BOSSANOVA
This album made me abandon trying to learn overly-complicated songs on piano and sideline my cheap, long-suffering bass for a very expensive (and wonderful) Fender Telecaster Deluxe 2006 and a Big Muff Fuzz pedal that I still miss to this day.
Again, not the album most people would have assumed to have brought me onboard nor even the first Pixies record I’d heard or enjoyed, it was a purely synchronous time/place instance that just suddenly grabbed on and wouldn’t let go. There was a lot of other stuff I came to appreciate in this period, like rediscovering The Cure and Nine Inch Nails, having fallen off the rails with my TOOL and Radiohead obsessions for a few years it was this album that really shook me back into remembering that there is a metric fucktonne of incredible music out there and that I should really try and expand my scope again.
I saw them a few different times over a few different years and their music is so dynamic for four people standing still and performing.
ON RE-LISTEN: I love Pixies. Another solid example of disparate personas and tastes blending together to make something wholly different than the sum of their parts, all these tracks are charming as hell. Underrated in their catalogue.
THE BEST OF TALKING HEADS
Talking Heads were one of those bands that had always seemed interesting in passing but that I’d never really paid that much attention to, so I picked this up to try and shotgun my way through a sample of their stuff and see what the big deal was. Someone I dated hated them and I think was curious about that, since they didn’t seem overly remarkable from the little I’d heard, almost like a novelty band or something. I still have no idea how that person got this so utterly wrong, to the extent that I’m almost sure I must be misremembering their hatred of such an offbeat, charming slice of music. To this day SPEAKING IN TONGUES is one of my favourite albums and David Byrne is an icon with his bizarre, angular approach. It makes sense that I would get into them after Pixies, since Frank Black’s erratic approach to song-craft has a lot of common foundations to David Byrne’s, even if they come at things with very different attitudes and aesthetics.
This and QotSA’s SONGS FOR THE DEAF remind me of one very specific summer before I decided to finally move out of home, which at that point was long overdue.
ON RE-LISTEN: I still listen to Talking Heads, so coasting through a greatest hits is fun when I remember the next song that’s meant to follow some track on the album and swap back and forth. It’s a long and meandering trip through any number of genres and style. Talking Heads are great, this doesn’t even scratch the surface of all their best songs.
DAVID BOWIE — THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST & THE SPIDERS FROM MARS
This is where I hit peak rockstar delusion. I’ve never been especially good at any instrument, but damn if this album didn’t make me want to be great. How many other people could say that David Bowie made them feel that way? Most musicians, successful or otherwise, I’d wager. Yet again, I knew Bowie from the hits (and from his occasional appearances in films) but this kicked off a burning love for his creativity that has stayed with me more than any other single artist.
Way back once upon a time (in the mid 00s) I wanted to go and see him play in Melbourne, but none of my friends were especially enthusiastic and I figured I’d catch him the next tour around. He never toured again and died before I ever got to see him. I still get sad any time I remember that he isn’t here anymore, and it often feels like the world has gotten worse overall since his passing. Encapsulating every decade of music from the 70s through to the 00s, he maintained a curiosity and passion for music that saw him working with everyone from Brian Eno to Trent Reznor to The Arcade Fire, and even famously turned down working with Coldplay because he didn’t care much for them, which just makes me love him even more.
This album also marked the point in my 20s where I started to slide more heavily into a years-long depression and this music was a particularly bright thing to hold onto during that time — a story about a world coming to its end and a single lone figure that wanted to save everyone but fell apart in the process. This album probably saved my life.
ON RE-LISTEN: I listen to other Bowie albums more because of the acute, specific emotions this one triggers for me, but it’s still wonderful. The guitar solo in Moonage Daydream absolutely soars, and Lady Stardust is far too often overlooked among Bowie’s vast catalogue of amazing songs.
TOM WAITS — FRANK’S WILD YEARS
I was being driven home from some drunken after-work do and my co-worker threw this on, citing the first track as a great song to be drunk in a car to.
And hell yeah was he right! I remember thinking “What is this VOICE??” and I was hooked. I bought the album the next day and then spun out into buying every Tom Waits album there is and discovering each and every one of them to be their own bizarre little collection of abrasive moods, infectiously primal grooves, tall tales, rough-lived yarns and the saddest stories you ever heard in your damn life all at once. Most musicians spend their whole lives trying to find the cleanest, purest distillation of their art. Tom Waits don’t give a fuck. He’s all raw, ragged edges and broken instruments and throttled cabaret singers and songs recorded on farming equipment and bones because that was the specific sound he wanted on that day. Oh, and he’s also, without contest, the best lyricist there ever was. That’s right. Fuck Bob Dylan. Anyone who tells you he’s the greatest lyricist of all time is flat wrong — Tom Waits runs laps around that chump, and still puts out gems to this day, which is definitely something Dylan can’t claim to.
ON RE-LISTEN: This is a really weird point of Tom’s career to have gotten into first — earlier than this was the drunken bar-room raconteur stuff that made him his name, and after this came a period of avant-garde theatricality before then a return to a sort of rough-hewn dirty blues. I love all these songs but I usually drop into other periods of his career when I feel like listening to him.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS — LET LOVE IN
Ah, the grandeur, ah, the gloom. All my gothic chickens came home to roost with Nick Cave. I remembered seeing some of his music videos throughout the 90s and he’d always seemed like this unfathomable Prince of Darkness sort. And yeah, he sure bloody is. But in the gothic tradition there is a foundation of romanticism holding the doom afloat — as much brutality and horror as there is sadness and longing, there is such power and majesty in Cave’s vocals and The Bad Seeds’ music. In all its arrogant glory, I wanted Lay Me Low played at my funeral, while Do You Love Me? (Part 2) to me is the song you hear while your life replays and you await judgement before heaven. The pomp and ceremony on this album definitely appeals to me in the same way that Be Prepared was such a commanding presence on THE LION KING soundtrack.
The greatest live show I ever saw was Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds with Grinderman (Cave’s garage-punk side project) playing a three hour Bad Seeds retrospective for five nights at The Forum in Melbourne, a venue decorated by marble statues and velvet curtains and climbing vines around Greek columns. The climax of Red Right Hand exploded with Warren Ellis’ electric violin screaming and Nick leaping about spitting demonic bellows in a finely tailored suit.
ON RE-LISTEN: If Bowie’s Five Years is fragile and human, then this is all terror and swagger and swinging your dick at God and daring him to take his best shot. Loverman is a cannon blast ridden through the senses by a devil. I think I mostly listen to his PUSH THE SKY AWAY album these days but I still appreciate all of his music.
THE BEATLES — MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR
Everyone likes The Beatles. If you don’t, you haven’t listened to The Beatles.
Like anyone with a passing interest music in their teens I had REVOLVER and ABBEY ROAD and such, but it wasn’t until their back catalogue got a massive remaster overhaul in 2009 that I finally decided to just really get in there. I made a playlist of every album in chronological order and would play the full 10 hours throughout the day while I tried to write my first terrible novel and then my second much less terrible but still pretty terrible novel. I was trying to dig back through “the classics”, working from who had inspired who backwards, and right before you reach Elvis you always hit The Beatles.
Did you know that their entire recording career only lasted six and a half years? In that time they released twelve records, any one of which was a landmark of popular music in its own right. Think about that a moment – if they were breaking up today they’d have only started releasing LPs in 2014!
Over the course of this playlist you can hear them evolve. Now they start smoking pot. Now they’re trying LSD. Now Lennon’s into heroin. Drop in anywhere and you’ll hear a dozen great tunes.
MMT is a curious one, since it is often forgotten among REVOLVER and SGT. PEPPER and THE WHITE ALBUM of the same year-ish long period. But it’s innovative and charming and in many ways it’s all their weirdest bits, and I’m a sucker for their weirdest bits. I’m sure you know almost all the songs on this album even if you’d never listened to it by itself.
I remember being in the shed of someone’s house following a house party where we’d all taken psilocybin mushrooms and someone put this album on the stereo, except the auxiliary cable was mono so we only got one of the audio channels. So someone started trying to fill in some of the musical blanks in the mix using random objects on the table and we wound up running through the whole album in this fashion with everyone remembering and recreating the missing pieces they knew. And we knew an incredible amount! Sure, we were tripping and it probably sounded terrible but it was bloody magical at the time.
ON RE-LISTEN: Ugh, the production on these remasters is gorgeous. I’m going to have these songs stuck in my head for weeks now. Infectious and joyful, how can you listen to this and not feel happy? Back then I always liked Harrison the most but I’ve grown to appreciate McCartney a lot more.
SAM COOKE — PORTRAIT OF A LEGEND
Somewhere between deep-diving The Beatles and getting really into Elvis on a kick working my way back towards The Andrews Sisters, someone shared this around a bunch of us at once. Old friends were living in Australia again after years abroad and things just seemed to always coalesce around old soul and Motown records at that time. Many, many great souls singers went through heavy rotation as even the slowest adapters of us were abandoning compact discs for ever-cheapening iPods and smartphones.
This was a time when we would head to Cherry Bar on a Thursday for Soul Night and many big relationships rose and fell on that circuit — we used to joke to the uninitiated that everyone always found true love at Cherry on a Thursday and more often than not the adage rang true.
My love of everyone from Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Sharon Jones, Al Green, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Charles Bradley and beyond into a renewed love for the warmth of disco, funk and Soul Train and Herbie Hancock can all be traced back to this Greatest Hits collection.
We were also listening to a lot of The Knife, so take from that what you will.
ON RE-LISTEN: If you can’t appreciate this music on some level then you’re either a lizard or dead on the inside. And even then a lizard would probably still feel something. This is humanity in a voice. It’s so strange to think that I’m older now than he ever got to be.
BECK — SEA CHANGE
Makes sense that I would have bounced into Beck again following The Beatles. There’s a lot of overlap in eclectic style, inventive production, and a complete disregard for genre conventions between them. I’d really gotten into MODERN GUILT several years earlier and had been bouncing around his albums fairly haphazardly, always keeping in mind that this one was very well regarded. When I finally got around to it I found more of those melancholic soundscapes I’d worn out on other records. This is his most beautiful songwriting, and a pretty big departure from his usual dancing jumble of styles.
This became the album I would always put on at the end of a long night of partying because it’s gentle and comforting. From the first chord I feel safe. The bassline and the strings on Paper Tiger (sampled from Serge Gainsbourg’s Cargo Culte) are a wonderful little journey to take in headphones while trying to block out the morning light creeping into your room.
Feels like wide open spaces, feels like freedom, feels like peace. I had begun to turn a big corner on aforementioned depressive streak after years of struggling against it, and this felt like finally breaking up with that part of myself and learning to grow out of it.
ON RE-LISTEN: I still listen to Beck, but more to particular tracks on random whims than to sit down with a whole album. I though the newest one or two were really unimaginative compared to anything pre-MORNING PHASE, which is a kind of sister album to SEA CHANGE. Maybe it was that connection which gave me a form of closure, I don’t come back to this one as often as I do his funkier fun stuff. It’s still lovely, still relaxing, still very haunting and bittersweet.
ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA — ELDORADO
I was split between choosing this and TIME — both of them are concept albums, but while the latter definitely informed an appreciation for synthpop and futurism, ELDORADO feels like an epic classical poem playing out over a chunk of time that matches the sort of grand nostalgia this album conjures for me. I had recently moved into a big share house in Flemington and these albums became the soundtrack to a dramatic uptick in quality of life as I went back to film school and fell in with a huge group of lovely weirdos whom I still miss, being so far from home as I’ve been the past five years. Sure, the poppier ELO stuff has carried me through to today (I finally got to see Jeff Lynne perform in 2019 which was something I never thought would happen), but this is much earlier and rougher compared to, say, the sublime and precise production of Sweet Talkin’ Woman or Telephone Line and that’s what spoke to me then.
This is more like a bunch of classical music students got high and drunk and tried to pick up from where The Beatles left off.
ON RE-LISTEN: I do miss the medley that was a bonus track I had on the deluxe version which cribs little snippets of all the songs from over the album into a single 8min instrumental track (I’m actually listening to it via YouTube as I write this section). I played it for a bunch of people on LSD at a party one time and they came out the other side completely breathless and shaking, like they had gone on a great journey and returned from somewhere very far away. I definitely listen to the more well-known Jeff Lynne/ELO tracks now but I’m glad I revisited this.
BONOBO — THE NORTH BORDERS
Between the last entry and this one is half a decade and more — a kaleidoscope of albums old and new that all feed into one another and are inseparable from one another. Lots of music for dancing, but singular albums get harder to call out as influential to or representative snapshots of taste in their own right. Sometimes I fell back into something decades old, sometimes I fell hard for something brand new.
Nowadays I have immense Spotify shuffle playlists built of songs tailored to different moods.
I listen to a lot of ambient electronica as I find it’s easier to focus on work (particularly writing). This was one of many albums I listened to when I was first getting set up in Vancouver, along with Boards of Canada and Nicolas Jaar.
I suppose the takeaway was that after the last entry I opened up to a huge array of different styles and THE NORTH BORDERS is only really a tiny sliver of the things I listened to, but has nonetheless been a constant throughout while encapsulating a lot of the overall tone.
ON RE-LISTEN: Feels like leaving home in the autumn and starting a new life in the summer of another hemisphere, feels like selling all your guitars because you have nowhere to keep them anymore, feels like going to Central America on a whim and blowing out all your money on being a rube of a tourist and living near broke working at a hostel in the jungle and trying to start writing the same book that you’re now finally working through a good edit of, five years and six rewrites later. Feels like Vancouver cusping into winter, warm coats and sitting at a bar window in a snowstorm reading a book with a black beer and a burger. Feels like a music festival in a forest, like lasers and blacklight and firs, like not sleeping for days because the tent you bought in a San Francisco Walmart gets too hot in the sun and all the best acts are on at 3am anyway. Feels like feet in a freezing lake surrounded by hummingbirds. Feels like trying to come down from being altogether too stressed at starting over and making a lot of foolish mistakes, but knowing you did the right thing.