Life Changing Music, Part 2: The High School Years

Ah, what a turbulent time! High school represents a time of both change and permanence–a time when you are able to alter the course of your own history while laying the foundation for the remainder of your life in terms of opinions, beliefs and practices. Simply put, high school is screwed up. Who really decides what they’re going to be for the rest of their lives when they’re still not legally allowed to make certain key choices about how they manage themselves? Nevertheless, these formative years often provide the core of any individual’s basic feelings on any subject, whether it’s music, art, literature or philosophy. While my interests expanded somewhat during college, this is where my roots are found. Here’s five stellar albums that have defined my opinion of what good music is.


We aren’t talking advanced physics. We aren’t talking complex harmonies. We’re simply talking about fun and being cynical and humorous over situations that are out of our control. Girls, politics, the “scene,” whatever pisses you off. Reel Big Fish was the first embodiment of this sentiment for me. I had heard them prior to my freshman year (“Keep Your Receipt” EP graced my stereo that summer), but it wasn’t until December of 1997 that I was able to locate and purchase this album. I’ve rebought it once since then due to wear and tear. To this day, I can put in this album and listen almost straight through four or five times before I have to change it. “Sell Out” is a phenomenal nod to corporate idiocy in the record company and those who mindlessly follow it. “Beer” is another classic, reflecting on being dumped and trying to erase the anger (I was a clean-cut kid, so this was more vicarious than anything). But overall, something about this album’s upbeat and high-energy sound just caught me. I’ve liked ska ever since, expanding to bands like Less Than Jake, Five Iron Frenzy, Big D and the Kids Table, Streetlight Manifesto, et al. Each time, I’ve found more energy and enjoyment out of these people than almost any other form of music. Even if you don’t like ska, this album would probably provide at least one song you could jam to.


This is not the first album I had gotten of BFF, but it was probably the most monumental in terms of composition and emotional impact (at least on a personal level). This album is tied closely to a certain relationship of mine that was fairly bitter when all was said and done. Some of the songs represent the glimmers of hope I tried to hold onto, while others flat out force me to abandon the dream in exchange for reality (“Magic” versus “Don’t Change Your Plans,” for example). However, after much listening, one of the songs that stood out most over time was “Your Most Valuable Possesion.” This may have been a starting point for the more experimental music I would later delve into, but at the least it was a great combination of a cool groove and impressively deep thoughts for an answering machine message. Ben Folds still rules, and he has only made himself more ubiquitous through collaborations with other artists, most notably with William Shatner (“Has Been” is incredible!). This one, unlike some other albums that may make this list, is worth an entire beginning-to-end listen.


Amazingly enough, my first run-in with Refused was relatively unmemorable. The second, though, came through MTV, which is even more incredible. The band’s “New Noise” absolutely blew me away one night while watching “Rock and Roll: A to Z.” It was beyond any measure of intense I had experienced up to that point. Rage Against the Machine was great, as was Chevelle and Tool, but only Zao competed with this band’s intensity, and they were more spooky than angry. Refused had true anger to push. Now, their earlier stuff, while still good, was just not as intriguing as “Shape.” Nevertheless, it presented them as a highly socio-political act, aiming to destroy capitalism and push for equality of classes and distribution of wealth. I was hooked almost instantly. At this time, I was rather skeptical of the government in the first place, and this only made matters worse. Even though they broke up about 2 years prior to my first listen, their words were still quite poignant. The stand-out track for me was “The Deadly Rhythm,” which incorporated jazz into its intro and its breakdown, along with incredibly chaotic beats. But this album, like “Reinhold Messner,” is a straight-through listening experience. It’s brilliant, inventive, and still totally off-the-wall when compared to other post-hardcore and punk acts. They’re very screamy, but not whiny. When I need to be invigorated, this is where I head. It’s artistic brilliance, and it was released only a short time before their demise in a basement in the United States (final concert was stopped by the police, to make things even more ironic).


In the summer of 1998 I met up with Seth Pederson at LTC (Leadership Training Camp, a week-long United Methodist camp in South Dakota). We actually met on the pretense of me playing Jars of Clay’s “Flood,” but his Reel Big Fish t-shirt caught my attention. We soon learned that we had extremely similar musical tastes, and within only a couple days we had become best friends. After camp, he and I got together and shared music and life stories. One of the bands that came up from his side of the musical sphere was MxPx (an abbreviation for Magnified Plaid). While I had heard Green Day beforehand, I hadn’t heard anything quite this fast or chaotic. If memory serves me, Seth played “Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo” for me, but I couldn’t find that album when I went to buy one, so I ended up with the B-side collection “Let it Happen” instead. Here’s what I remember of my first listen to this Christian punk group: we were in my bedroom in Madison, and Seth said, “Listen to this!” When he played the first song from the album, I thought it was faster and crazier than anything I had ever heard before that point. In fact, I really didn’t like it. Reel Big Fish was much more moderate in its approach, and Green Day was a slower version of this style. But it didn’t take many listens before I decided that this band was worth the purchase. “Let it Happen,” although only a B-side collection, was a great representation of the band’s early and later days, up until probably “Teenage Politics.” This album provided the foundation for much of the group’s musical style, and many of the songs on it are still favorites of mine (“Swingset Girl” is awesome). Worth every penny of my $12!

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