Category Archives: Influential Albums

Led Zeppelin II

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Confession time: for a long time, Led Zeppelin IV just didn’t do it for me.

In the Napster days, Led Zeppelin was this name that always got tossed around as the definitive hard rock band. Knowing that “Stairway to Heaven” was their most popular song, I figured that Led Zeppelin IV was the obvious point to jump on the Led Zep bandwagon. Bad call. I went in expecting something along the lines of “Hells Bells” and ended up with songs like “Four Sticks”, and “The Battle of Evermore”. Great songs in retrospect, but at the time, I saw the album’s diversity as incoherence. Without three album’s worth of context, it just came across as an album that couldn’t decide on it’s own identity. Looking back, Led Zepplin IV is an amazing album, but at age 15, I’d decided that Led Zep just wasn’t for me.

A couple of years later, I’d finished up high school, but had no firm plans on what to do with my life. Instead of blowing a few thousand dollars on some random universty program, I made the call to do an extra year of high school. With all the advanced math and science classes under my belt, I was left with a lot of choice in that last year. Computer programming/engineering classes seemed like a safe bet, but that wouldn’t fill up an entire schedule. The time was right to get a bit more experimental with my course picks, and what high school class says free spirit more than guitar?

As much as I loved the idea of learning how to actually play the music I enjoyed, I did have some reservations. Namely, my complete lack of musical talent. Seriously, it was pretty bad.

In grade 5, my class was given the task of learning how to play the recorder. The instrument itself wasn’t all that intimidating, but reading sheet music turned out to be extremely difficult for me. After learning the first 3-note song, I was completely lost, and way behind the rest of the class. The rest of the year was spent sitting as low as possible at my desk, in an attempt to obscure my hands from the teacher’s view. From there, I’d pantomime what the other kids were doing, and pretend to blow into that stress-inducing, wannabe flute. Whenever the time came for a test, I’d transcribe the notes into a system of numbers that fit with my finger placement, and fumble through the song. After all that, I walked away with a solid “B” mark, and a healthy sense of anxiety whenever the thought of performing music popped into my head.

Fortunately, guitar class worked out much better because I ended up with an amazing teacher. He wasn’t nessecarily Ynngwie Malmsteen, but he had a real passion for his job, and patience to spare. The sound of twenty teens mangling “Sweet City Woman” never seemed to fase him one bit, and he knew we could only get better. Afterall, the spirit of rock was chaos, and we had that in spades. Best of all, by getting rid of sheet music, the barrier for entry was tossed right out the window. With guitar tabs, and transcribed chords I had a fighting chance at this whole music thing.

Throughout that year, I gained a new appreciation for dozens of artists. The Beatles, The Who, Bowie, Hendrix, Kansas….even Led Zeppelin. Songs like “Moby Dick”, and “Bring it on Home” sounded like I’d always imagined Led Zeppelin should sound. The main riffs weren’t overly complicated, but still had the ability to make you look, sound, and feel like a legit rock star if you could pull them off. As it turns out, all of the “new” Led Zeppelin songs that I was discovering came from the same album….Led Zeppelin II. Their second album, and their second chance at winning me over.

I picked up the album on my next trip to MusicWorld, and thankfully, I wasn’t let down in the slightest. While a bit less diverse than their fourth album, Led Zeppelin II delivered on that promise of being the definitive hard rock experience from intro to outro. This was the legendary Led Zeppelin that I’d heard so much about, and it was the exact album that I’d been looking for.

From beginning to end, Led Zeppelin II had that sense of cohesion I didn’t get from their fourth record. Track sequencing probably had a lot to do with this. Jimmy Page did an incredible job of creating the perfect flow to keep you engaged the entire time. Kicking things off with “Whole Lotta Love”, then calming things down for an intermission of sorts with “Thank You”, before jumping into the second act with “Heartbreaker”.

To close out the whole show, there’s “Bring it on Home”. Beginning with a slow, heavily distorted blues intro, “Bring it on Home” suddenly explodes with life around the 1:40 mark. The band keeps that frenetic pace going for the rest of the song, before returning to the slow blues riff for the outro. It’s the perfect track to end the album with, and gives Led Zeppelin II an excellent mix of climax, and closure in the confines of a single song.

Needless to say, after Led Zeppelin II, I was finally sold on Led Zeppelin. Over the next few years, I’d pick up their other records, and with the context of Led Zeppelin II, I was much more open to the blues-heavy Led Zep I, the acoustic/folk-influence of Led Zep III, as well as the later albums that threw most genre conventions out the window. Without giving Led Zeppelin that second chance, I would’ve completely missed out on “The Rain Song”, and that’s just not a world that I’d want to live in.

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Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater Soundtrack

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I’m a big fan of programs like iTunes Genius. They take the music that you’re currently listening to, and give you song recommendations based on other people with similar taste in music. In high school, the soundtracks to the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games were like my own version of iTunes Genius. The big difference being, all song suggestions were based on the assumption that I really liked skate punk.

With the rampant music downloading at the time, I wasn’t listening to too many albums. Internet connection speeds were catching up with my ambitions of checking out all the songs that I’d heard of, but there was a new obstacle approaching fast. I was running out of new music to check out. The pop stations generally repeated the same songs on a daily basis, and even the local rock station tended to stick to the same playlist. Hearing Metallica’s cover of “Turn the Page” for the 50th time wasn’t exactly inspiring, so I was on the lookout for a new source. Enter, the Tony Hawk series.

I’d picked up Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for the Nintendo 64 in the fall of 2000, and instantly fell in love with the music. Looking back, it was probably the worst possible way to be introduced to these songs. N64 games were pretty infamous for their limited storage capacity. This wasn’t a huge deal for games like Zelda, or Mario where the music was mostly chiptunes, but things got a bit dicey when pre-recorded music tracks entered the scene. In the transition from CD (Playstation) to cartridge (N64), the Tony Hawk soundtrack got pretty mangled. The sound quality took a dive, songs were heavily edited for time/language, and a good chunk of the tracks didn’t even make the cut. All that said, I still spent hours in front of the TV with the same minute and a half of “Superman” by Goldfinger on repeat.

I’ve heard it said that the true test of a song’s quality, is if it still holds up when performed by a single singer with a guitar. I’d say that if you hear a song filtered through the Nintendo 64, and still enjoy it, that song’s probably a masterpiece.

Each successive year brought a new Tony Hawk game, and along with it, a new song list that seemed custom made for me. Thanks to the annual boost in song-count, and genre diversity, I’d found my go-to source for new tunes in high school.

Eventually Activision (the publisher of Tony Hawk), would run the series into the ground, but those first 4 games were magic. If there’s any doubt, just take a look at this track list:

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
1. The Dead Kennedys – Police Truck
2. The Ernies – Here and Now
3. Even Rude – Vilified
4. Goldfinger – Superman
5. Primus – Jerry Was a Race Car Driver
6. Speedealer – Screamer/Nothing to Me
7. Suicidal Tendencies – Cyco Vision
8. The Suicide Machines – New Girl
9. Unsane – Committed
10. The Vandals – Euro-Barge

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
1. Rage Against the Machine – Guerilla Radio
2. Bad Religion – You
3. Anthrax feat. Chuck D. of Public Enemy – Bring the Noise
4. Powerman 5000 – When Worlds Collide
5. Naughty by Nature – Pin the Tail on the Donkey
6. Papa Roach – Blood Brothers
7. The High and Mighty feat. Mos Def & Mad Skillz – B-Boy Document 99
8. Consumed – Heavy Metal Winner
9. Dub Pistols – Cyclone
10. Swingin’ Utters – Five Lessons Learned
11. Styles of Beyond – Subculture
12. Millencolin – No Cigar
13. Black Planet feat. Alley Life – Out With the Old
14. Lagwagon – May 16
15. Fu Manchu – Evil Eye

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
1. AFI – The Boy Who Destroyed the World
2. Adolescents – Amoeba
3. Alien Ant Farm – Wish
4. Bodyjar – Not the Same
5. CKY – 96 Quite Bitter Beings
6. Del the Funky Homosapien – If You Must
7. Guttermouth – I’m Destroying the World
8. House of Pain – I’m a Swing It
9. KRS-One – Hush
10. Mad Capsule Markets – Pulse
11. Motorhead – Ace of Spades
12. The Nextmen – Amongst the Madness
13. Ozomatli – Cut Chemist Suite
14. The Ramones – Blitzkrieg Bop
15. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Fight Like a Brave
16. Redman – Let’s Get Dirty
17. The Reverend Horton Heat – I Can’t Surf
18. Rollins Band – What’s the Matter Man
19. Xzibit – Paparazzi
20. Zebrahead – Check

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4
1. AC/DC – TNT
2. Aesop Rock – Labor
3. Agent Orange – Bloodstains (Darkness Version)
4. Avail – Simple Song
5. The Bouncing Souls – Manthem
6. City Stars – Bad Dreams
7. The Cult – Bad Fun
8. De La Soul – Oodles of O’s
9. Delinquent Habits – House of the Rising Drum
10. The Distillers – Seneca Falls
11. Eyedea & Abilities – Big Shots
12. The Faction – Skate and Destroy
13. Flogging Molly – Drunken Lullabies
14. Gang Star – Mass Appeal
15. Goldfinger – Spokesman
16. Haiku D’Etat – Non Compos Mentis
17. Hot Water Music – Freightliner
18. Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast
19. JFA – Beach Blanket Bongout
20. Less Than Jake – All My Best Friends are Metalheads
21. Lootpack – Whenimondamic
22. Lunchbox Avenue – Everything and Anything
23. Public Enemy – By The Time I Get to Arizona
24. Muskabeatz – Bodyrock (feat. Biz Markie)
25. Muskabeatz – I’m A Star (feat. Grandmaster Melle Mel)
26. Muskabeatz – Versus of Doom (feat. Jeru the Damaja)
27. N.W.A. – Express Yourself
28. Nebula – Giant
29. The Offspring – Blackball
30. P.O.D. – Boom
31. Rocket from the Crypt – Savoir Faire
32. Run-DMC – My Adidas
33. Sex Pistols – Anarchy in the UK
34. System of a Down – Shimmy
35. Toy Dolls – Dig That Groove Baby
36. U.S. Bombs – Yer Country
37. Zeke – Death Alley

Napster

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A the dawn of the new millennium, Napster was at the forefront of a huge shakeup of the music industry. Suddenly, every song you’d ever imagined listening to was available for free. The 60s had free love, but we had free tunes, and it was a dream come true.

I’m counting Napster along with the other influential albums, because, to be honest, it (and its other P2P contemporaries) did more to inform me about music than any single album could. The days of paying $20 for a few songs, and hoping that the rest of the album was decent, were officially over. The only real barrier for entry left, was how much patience you had for dial-up internet.

I first heard about Napster in the spring of 2000, from the same friend that introduced me to Fat Music Vol. IV. He told tales of a computer program that let people download, and share all the music in the world. To top it all off, the entire thing was free.  The whole idea seemed too crazy to be true, but I couldn’t wait to try it out.

The program itself was really user friendly. The simplicity of just typing in the name of the artist/song you wanted, then having it just show up was pretty mind blowing at the time. You’d get a list of results arranged by audio quality, and whatever connection speed the uploader was running on. Normally it would make the most sense to go with the highest sound quality, but there was a bit of a catch back then. High quality meant bigger file sizes, and bigger file sizes meant longer download times. Now, patience was only part of it. The biggest concern was that the longer something was downloading, the more likely it was that someone would call your house, and instantly kill your internet connection. Downloading “Stairway to Heaven” can get pretty stressful, when it’s your 20th try, it’s 90% downloaded, and you’re positive that your grandmother’s going to call at any second.

Putting the technical limitations aside, Napster gave me an unheard of freedom to discover new artists and genres. It even had a built in chat, with different rooms for more genres of music than I’d even heard of at that point. An innocent question of, “What is Ska?” in the Ska chat room resulted in an impromptu essay about what Ska “means”, from someone that I can only assume, was the founder of the hipster movement.

Those first few months of using Napster were pretty incredible. Even people with 14.4kbit connections were happily sharing their music collections with the world. The legality of the whole thing never really occured to me at the time. I mean, this was before Metallica let us know that, surprisingly enough, all this swapping of copyrighted material might be considered piracy by some.

The popular idea at the time was that Napster was costing the music industry a fortune. I can’t speak for everybody, but if it wasn’t for Napster, the record company execs would be walking around with a lot less of my money in their pockets. Without the financial barrier for entry, I was free to check out a ton of bands that I’d heard of, but wasn’t really familiar with. Bands like Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Eagles, The Who, Green Day…. Bands that I’d go on to spend a good chunk of real, honest-to-goodness cash on.

With all this newfound music, I set out to develop my own version of the Big Shiny Tunes series. Soup Mix volumes 1-4 (and its spinoff brand, Soup’s Punk Mix) were an ever evolving anthology series, that gave a pretty good snapshot of my musical tastes at the time. Mostly consisting of equal amounts The Offspring, AC/DC, and Goldfinger, the mixes would go on to bring in more genres and artists over time.

I didn’t own a CD burner at the time, so I had to get a friend of mine to actually burn the CDs. Since there was a charge of $10, and a lengthy bike ride associated with the creation of each Soup Mix, I put a lot of time into the pre-burn process. After designing the cover art, I’d spend hours writing out all the songs I wanted, then doing some hardcore math to whittle down the run-times to come under that 80 minute mark.

Once the songs were picked, I started to really focus on flow. Taking extra care to make sure that the transition from one track to another was never jarring, no matter how many genres and tempos I wanted to cram on there. Lagwagon and Buffalo Springfield don’t just go together without a bit of planning after all.

Napster wouldn’t last forever, but Kazaa and Morpheus picked up the slack for the remainder of high school. Gradually the music sharing scene lost that bohemian spirit of music for everyone, and became a bit more about surprise viruses and spyware. It was nice while it lasted though.

Fat Music Vol. IV: Life in the Fat Lane

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For me, this album was basically the Big Shiny Tunes 2 of punk music. A collection of some really great songs, and a snapshot of a time where Punk music was on the cusp of big mainstream success.

In a bit of a repeat theme, my introduction to Fat Music Volume IV involved after-school PlayStation sessions. The differences being, this was a different friend, we were playing Twisted Metal 3, and there was approximately 100% more German punk music involved.

Life in the Fat Lane put me in that coveted position of knowing all about the coolest bands that nobody else had heard of yet. The “yet” part was the key point, because there’s that implication that at any time, one of these bands could become immensely popular. For the most part, that didn’t happen, but I still felt like I was holding the keys to the cool kingdom on my way into high school. I was all set to be “that guy” who could be relied on to spread the knowledge of Lagwagon and Swingin’ Utters. This also, for the most part, didn’t end up happening.

I did, however, end up bonding with a future best friend over our mutual love of Me First and the Gimmie Gimmes. Nothing quite says “instant friends”, like a shared appreciation of Rogers and Hammerstein played really, really fast.

1. Lagwagon – May 16
2. Mad Caddies – Road Rash
3. No Use for a Name – Coming Too Close
4. Sick of it All – Pass the Buck
5. Consumed – **** Called Maurice
6. Swingin’ Utters – Promise to Distinction
7. Good Riddance – Heresy, Hypocrisy, and Revenge
8. Frenzal Rhomb – Do You Wanna Fight Me?
9. Strung Out – The Exhumation of Virginia Madison
10. Avail – Taken
11. The Ataris – San Dimas High School Football Rules
12. Tilt – Old School Pig
13. Goober Patrol – Part Time SF Ecologist
14. NOFX – The Plan
15. Snuff – Keep the Beat
16. Screeching Weasel – Dummy Up
17. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes – My Favorite Things
18. WIZO – Quadrat im Kreis

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

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These days, I’m really thankful for Shazam. There are few things more frustrating than hearing an amazing song, and having no clue what it’s called, who it’s by, or how to ever hear it again. There were so many mystery songs where I’d listen intensely for any lyric that even remotely resembled a song title. Failing that, I’d invest all hope in the possibility that the radio DJ would mention the name of the song after it finished playing (this method dashed more hopes than betting on the Leafs).
The worst offenders were the songs that had the audacity to not even mention their titles in the lyrics. If it weren’t for Guitar Hero, I’d probably still only know Possum Kingdom as that song they play on Rock 101, which may or may not be about vampires.  The purchase of my first dance album started out as one of these epic searches.

In the winter of ’99, I was on an ice fishing trip with my dad, step-mom, and sisters. I’m sure there was an intention of getting me interested in the manly pursuit of braving the elements, and yanking food out of the freezing water, but it just didn’t take.
I can’t really say that I’d recommend ice fishing. It’s kind of like regular fishing, but with all the fun removed.
Like casting a line out into the distance, using one glorious, sweeping motion?
You get to drop a line in a hole.
Like relaxing in the sun, while you dangle your feet off the end of a dock and wait for a bite?
You get to sit out on the ice, where there aren’t any of those pesky trees to block the -40° winds, and wait for frostbite.

On the upside, I had a good time during the other parts of the trip. We were staying with a friend of my dad’s, and their kids were pretty well decked out with video games. Most of the time there was spent struggling to make it through Donkey Kong Country mine cart levels, but I did end up taking a trip upstairs to play some N64 with the older kids.

The upstairs room was smoky, dimly lit, and the wallpaper was a D.I.Y job made out of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. I couldn’t have been more out of my element.  I did have one thing going for me though.  They were playing GoldenEye, and I was pretty decent at GoldenEye. During a run through the Library level, a song came on the stereo that really caught my attention. It sounded both old, and futuristic at the same time. Surf-rock guitars mixing with techno beats, and a repeating lyric about a “Funk Soul Brother”.

I spent months keeping an ear out for that song. Nobody knew who it was by, or what it was even called. It was almost approaching urban legend status, and it wouldn’t be until my grade 8 class trip to Toronto, that I’d finally catch a break in the case.

Since my school jumped on the Toronto trip bandwagon a bit late, my class ended up getting split in half, and lumped in with two other schools. I’d never taken part in any intramural sports, so this was my first real interaction with kids from a different elementary school.  When you spend 8 years with the exact same group of people, it’s a bit unnerving to get tossed into a completely different group that had known each other for just as long, so I was a bit nervous.

I got over my inherent shyness as soon as I heard the guy in front of me on the bus singing along to “Funk Soul Brother” on his Discman. I jumped up and asked, “Hey kid! What’s that song?” I think he was a bit caught off guard by my abruptness, but he let me know it was Fatboy Slim.

I made sure to track down Fatboy Slim at the next music store we visited on the trip.  Apparently Fatboy Slim was the name of the artist, and “Rockafeller Skank” was the name of the song that I’d been searching for.  Never would’ve guessed either of those facts in a million years.

The album itself ended up being pretty solid, but for me it represented an achievement more than anything else.  I’d finally tracked down this musical beast against all odds, and could listen to it whenever I pleased.

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Americana

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If I was asked to pick one album that defined my teenage musical taste, Americana would be it.

I was introduced to the speedy guitar riffs, and unique vocal stylings of The Offspring by a friend of mine in grade 8. His older brother had a pretty extensive Offspring collection at the time, so they ended up providing the background tunes for most of our afterschool Tekken 3 tournaments.  No offense to the people behind the Tekken soundtrack, but “Kick Him When He’s Down” should’ve been Lei Wulong’s theme song…. just sayin’. At the time, Americana was their latest release, so it seemed like a good place to start, if I was going to build an Offspring collection of my own.

As a 13 year old boy in Northern Ontario, the fact that the entire album was a satire of American culture went a bit over my head.  From the phone menu opening, to lyrics of disillusionment with American dream… it wasn’t exactly new ground, but it was new to me.  Almost like a punk rock precursor to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire.

There were plenty of things that I did appreciate about it at the time though. The fact that “Have You Ever” lead seamlessly into “Staring at the Sun” blew my mind at the time. I was a good five years away from hearing the Abbey Road medley, so that extra bit of flair convinced me that The Offspring were punk rock musical geniuses. Not only that, but they even had the audacity to include a hidden song at the end (again, not unlike Abbey Road).

The palm muted guitars, and high speed drum beats went on to provide the blueprint for music that I would be guaranteed to enjoy in high school. Kind of like having iTunes genius only give recommendations based on The Offspring. The music had an edge and aggression to it, but it was never oppressively heavy sounding. It was an odd mix of comfort and danger that really clicked with me.  Comforting because you could always count on that prototypical punk sound, and dangerous because they’d toss in just enough curse words to avoid a “Parental Advisory” sticker on the cover.

I don’t listen to as much Offspring these days, but I really can’t imagine what high school would’ve been like without them.

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Hello Nasty

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Heading into the summer of ‘98, a friend of mine gave me the heads up that I was about to see the greatest music video of all time. Cue the giant dancing robot, duking it out with a squid-man on the streets of Tokyo. The whole scene really played to my sensibilities as a Power Rangers fan, and gave me something to keep an eye out for on the next trip to Music World.

Hello Nasty came out when MP3s hadn’t quite caught on yet. At the time, music piracy still meant hitting the record button on a tape deck, whenever a song you liked came on the radio. Because of all that, buying a CD on the strength of one or two songs was pretty much the status quo.
Before any CD purchase, it was a good idea to be prepared for the possibility that the 12 songs you hadn’t heard, could very well be complete trash. That way, whatever you enjoyed past the 2 or 3 songs that you bought the album for, would just be pleasant surprise.  Intergalactic was a fun enough listen that I was set to deal with that worst case scenario.

Based on the singles I’d heard, I went into the album expecting everything to have that signature “Beastie Boys” sound.  A catchy beat, and the last syllable of every line sounding like it was written with Caps Lock on.

Something like this:
“Well Now don’t you tell me to SMILE
You stick around I’ll make it worth your WHILE
Got numbers beyond what you can DIAL
Maybe it’s because I’m so versaTILE”

The first few tracks played along with this idea, but then things started to get weird.  “Song for the Man” was like psychadelic elevator music, with vocals sounding like they were recorded underwater.  From that point on, for every bit of standard hip hop, they tossed in something completely unexpected. Everything from the eerie instrumental song “Sneakin’ Out The Hospital”, to the smooth jazz sounds of “Song for Junior”.

“I Don’t Know” ended up being the song off the album that stuck with me the most.  First off, like a good chunk of the album, it sounds absolutely nothing like “Intergalactic”.  It’s this sweet acoustic song, with softly sung vocals that fly in the face of all expectations of the group that’s known for hits like “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”, and “Sabotage”.

Over the years, I’ve just grown to appreciate diversity of the album more, and more.  Even today, it’s pretty rare to see a group ignore genre conventions, and offer this much variety on a single release.

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