Life Changing Music, Part 1: Most Influential Albums from Middle School and Before

There are certain songs, bands, albums, ideas that hook you when you’re young and change forever your opinion of what music should be. Before my middle school years (1994-1997), I based my musical tastes largely on two things: my parents’ music and the music on Top 40 radio (the latter provided mostly bad rap and corny pop, other than the occasional nuggets of Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Weezer, but I knew little of them at that point). Needless to say, I was limited to MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice and Debbie Gibson. Don’t get me wrong, there are merits in any music that anyone listens to, but my tastes were not very widespread. Now, my parents’ music, on the other hand, was much more interesting. The inclusion of everything from Buddy Holly and Elvis to Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull made me understand how fantastic music could be. So, this is essentially where my story should start.


If there’s one Beatles album that I truly listened to before I was in eighth grade, this is it.  It was their last official recording as a group, although there were a few more releases before anyone knew John, Paul, George and Ringo had parted ways forever.  The album is a conglomerate of unique compositions, with each member of the band contributing some very diverse elements.  “Come Together” makes a big impact on almost anyone right away, but I found that “Something” and “Golden Slumbers” stuck with me the most as I got older.  I don’t know what it is about this album, but something in its style epitomizes how I see the Beatles: it’s different from their start, but it seems to be a full-circle approach.  You don’t feel like it’s the end, even though you know that it is.  They still have the bluesy influences and the catchy tunes and lyrics (thanks mostly to Paul McCartney), but there’s a certain darkness to the sound, a quality not unlike relaxing your lungs after a long and panicky performance, the final breath out.  You get a bit of a grin on your face, and then you hang up your instruments and feel satisfied that you’ve done something incredible.  If you haven’t gotten into the Beatles (or don’t know who they are), this is one of the better places to start.  It’s not too out there, but it isn’t the pop cliches that some of their earliest stuff seems to be.  Still, listen to “Beatles for Sale” to get an idea of their roots, just as a balance.


Chuck Klosterman says in “Killing Yourself to Live” that every boy, at some point or another, falls madly, deeply, irrevocably in love with Led Zepplin, believing firmly that there never was–and never will be–any greater band on earth.  Led Zepplin’s “IV” was the album that brought me to that conclusion in my years before high school.  Yes, you eventually grow out of that opinion, but the band still lingers there long after you’ve changed your favorite.  The first time I remember putting this album in (I had found it in my dad’s collection and subsequently commandeered it) I felt like I had listened to it a hundred times before.  “Stairway to Heaven” was the song that felt most familiar.  I had heard of it, but I was pretty sure I’d never heard it.  But it felt natural.  It was cathartic, poetic and completely nonsensical, all in one long, drawn out path of fascinating sound.  But while it is a shining gem in Zepplin’s collection, I’m more attached to songs like “Black Dog” and “Rock ‘n Roll,” mostly because they led me to more fascinating choices later in my life.  “Stairway” was safe in comparison.  Now, I also listened to “III,” and it is a great album as well, but “IV” was much more formative to me.  It felt less experimental, more organized.  More of a whole album feel, to be honest.  Call it what you will, but Led Zepplin “IV” was one of my top albums for years.


Not really specific to this album, but it’s the one I had in my collection first–Glenn Miller was my first introduction to really fantastic jazz music.  It branched out from there to Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Getz, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but Miller was first.  “In the Mood” was one of my favorites in middle school, and I even got to play it in jazz band.  I had an early leaning towards saxophone, mostly because of 80’s bands that included sax in their music, but jazz was quickly becoming a passion of mine.  This particular album contained a bunch of Glenn Miller’s big hits, including many vocal tracks that I pretty much passed over.  I wanted stuff like Tuxedo Junction, Pennsylvania 6-5000 and other great classics.  Stuff I could jam with, dance to.  No lie, I tried to get all my friends to listen to jazz, but few of them took to it.  If it weren’t for Miller’s music, though, I may have never learned to appreciate jazz as much as I do now.


Those who knew me prior to my college years knew that I was not a country fan.  Not in the least.  The one exception, though, was Garth Brooks.  I started listening to Brooks because a few of my friends had talked about his music and started singing it.  I thought I’d give it a try.  Funny thing, after a whole lot of country music hating, Garth demonstrated the brighter side of country–catchy melodies, great sing-along potential and a knack for mixing humor with some pretty rough subjects (“Papa Loved Mama,” for example).  My favorite song from this album, though, is “The River.”  This is a great message and an incredible melody, one that I sang to every time I heard it–and still do to this day.  If I had to pick one artist that pushed me into the realm of “country enthusiast,” Garth Brooks is the guy.  I highly recommend any of his albums, but this was the one I got when I was in middle school.

THE BEACH BOYS: ENDLESS SUMMER (a greatest hits collection)

Yes, it’s just a “greatest hits” album, so no real meat to the structure, but the Beach Boys represent something magical about American culture, especially during their heyday, but also far past the 1960’s.  Even “Kokomo” represents an awesome time in my childhood (singing with my family as we road tripped around the country!).  But when it comes to just great music involving cars, girls, and good times, the Beach Boys’ brand of pop is unrivaled (okay, Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffet have a spot in this category, but seriously, where did it all start?  That’s what I thought).  Whether it’s “Fun, Fun, Fun” or “California Girls,” you can jam.  But if you want to get a little deeper, “In My Room” and “Good Vibrations” provide the slightly more contemplative side that Brian Wilson became famous for.  No true American can deny the fun that the Beach Boys bring to those who have heard them.  Also, as a bonus, I got to see the Beach Boys live in Sioux Falls when I was in middle school!  Yeah, they were older, but they still carried the same attitude, which made it awesome.

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