It’s really quite difficult to choose 10 songs specifically that changed my life. These are more than just songs I like, and I like some other songs more than those on this list. But these are the ones that influenced me musically and in my life as a musician. I might run out of songs before I reach 10 but we’ll see.
“Stir it Up” by Bob Marley & The Wailers
There are a lot of Bob Marley songs that I love, but this one to me is an essential part of the soundtrack of my early childhood. It was the songs of Marley and other similar artists that made me feel like music was a natural part of the order of the universe. In my young mind I naturally assumed that everyone in the world young and old listened to, danced to, and surely loved all the same music my mother did. Though of course I more intuited this revelation than grasped it conceptually. At any rate it’s this song in particular that stands out in my memory. The lyrical yearning in the song and its playful tone, make it accessible to all. I think I didn’t understand the song’s meaning until I finally sat down and had a think about the lyrics, maybe when I was 13 or so. But I revisited the song more recently and thought, wait a minute… is he saying “steer it up?” It’s more than just a song about abstract desire or loving affection, it’s literally a song about f***ing. Or maybe it isn’t. Anyway it still bangs. Plus there’s that otherworldly moog synthesizer throughout, keening like a whale in love. It wouldn’t be the same without that.
“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
I think I should thank my dad for this one, as he used to like to buy tapes with rock compilations from the 50s and 60s. We’d put them on and me and my younger brother would be rocking out to “Rock Around The Clock” and “Purple People Eater”, and more, all cleverly written songs that make you bop your head and stomp your feet. But this one in particular used to drive me wild. Ten-year-old me learned all the words and would sing along at the top of my lungs. I used to get my little brothers plastic toy rake (why was this even a toy?) and I’d string rubber bands down it to make it look like a guitar, (exactly like a guitar), it even went doyng! doyng! doyng! when you plucked it. Then I saw that Marty McFly played the song in Back To The Future and I thought, well this must just be the best song ever written. I particularly like it because it’s somewhat aspirational in the lyrics “His mother told him ‘someday you will be a man, and you will be the leader of a big ol’ band…’ Somewhere deep down I used to think, yeah, he’s talking about me too.
“More Human Than Human” by White Zombie
My older brother and his then girlfriend took me to see White Zombie play, and to what was my first real concert rock experience. At the time I didn’t know who White Zombie were. But they came to Fort Lauderdale and played and my mind was blown. I think that was also probably the first time I ever sustained minor permanent hearing loss. It was the loudest thing I’d ever experienced. Moshing, crowd-surfing, 90s people everywhere, try to imagine. And the music – theme heavy, riff driven, mood altering, and “heavy-metal oriented” and the lyrics were like horror word collages. It was impossible for me not to like it as a teen in South Florida. “More Human Than Human” was like the acid-laced metal horror version of Beck’s “Loser” (another song I Super-Like). The slide guitar riff used to get me in the mood to drive my younger brother to our school in the morning. And hearing them always did remind me of my first concert experience.
“Sabotage” by The Beastie Boys
When I was about 17 I saw this senior in my high school named Benji go up onstage during our mandatory attendance talent show and with his crew he did this song, and he killed it. I was amazed. We had been watching ballet, and I think a flautist, and then a guy on an acoustic guitar sitting on a chair, and then bam! “AHHHH CAN’T STAND IT I KNOW YA PLANNED IT!!!” Up until that moment, there was no connection between me or anyone I knew, and the musicians at the concerts I’d been to. You see, on MTV, and up onstage at arenas and stadiums, those weren’t real people, those were stars, icons, brilliant artists, amazing talents that were beyond me and mine. Not normal people. And yet here was this guy who I had Geometry with going up onstage and turning everyone in the front two rows into screaming fans. It was a shocking revelation. He was amazing, and I thought, but hey, I could do that! Why didn’t I do that? I should do that! I just had to wait until next year’s talent show. Yup. No other thing for it. The first time I saw the “Sabotage” video was later that year I think, actually on Beavis & Butthead. They loved it, I loved it. The song is so full of tension. The record scratchings are trying to tell me a secret, like perhaps that they’re being tortured, if only I spoke record scratch. The song sounds like it’s constantly waiting to drop. The drums are a madman banging on some trashcans behind the Circle K, and the Beastie Boys are angry at a titular saboteur! F***ing get that guy!
I’m gonna skip #5. If you want something to listen to check out J. Ralph, a composer and songwriter I respect and admire. I heard him on NPR one day and he said he sort of describes his music to expert musicians and singers who then make it happen. A working style that I appreciate and sometimes try to emulate. http://www.jralph.com/the-illusionary-movements-of-geraldine-nazu
If “Paradise Del Anima Persa” doesn’t move you then you might be an inhuman monster.
“Break on Through” by The Doors
“Last Nite” by The Strokes
Around 2001 I sort of thought rock was dead, they just kept playing Disturbed’s “Stupify” on the radio, and Linkin Park’s “In The End” and I dunno, maybe 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite”, on an endless loop, which, you know, great for them. I’m not saying those are bad songs. But you know what actually, f*** those songs. But, anyway, there was something missing. Something that was hard to put your finger on. Where was the fun? Where was the cool? Why was it so wonderful to be all edgy, to lyrically keep asking people to save you because you were going off a cliff or something? Everyone throwing on half a dozen layers of guitar and some samples, I dunno, it’s hard to describe what I was feeling at the time. Where was the joie de vivre? Enter The Strokes, instrumentally pared back, unapologetically fun, even when the songs were complaining about something. I mean that’s the feeling I got. “Last Night” was a love letter to what made rock music great. All of the sudden the kind of music I liked was cool again. It created an incandescent particle in my brain that wouldn’t die, it just spread. A fire making me want to make new music. So I love The Strokes, and I don’t care who knows it. And this song woke me up and turned me into a rocker again.
“Mother” by John Lennon
Writing songs is easy. And also it’s not. You’ve got to find inspiration somewhere, but where? How? There’s a good scene in the band-centric movie Frank where Domnhall Gleeson’s character is trying to write a song, and he’s trying really hard. And he wanders around and he sees a girl in a red dress and he starts singing, “‘Girl in a red dreesss, giiiirl in a red dreeeess,’ no that’s shit. Damn.”*
That’s what it’s like a lot of the time I suppose. Except when it’s not. The best songs come from a place of honesty. When you find a vein of truth and you start mining it, you sometimes end up going real deep. People connect with that, and when you’re real in your songs you are channelling what it means to be human, and you’re turning that into your art. I mean, ideally. When I first heard “Mother” someone had given me a John Lennon’s greatest hits CD for Christmas and I put it on in the car, and this song came on and I was rocked. This guy sang about his deepest fears and most secret pains. And it was good, it was cathartic just to listen to, and it was eye-opening. It affected my writing style in a way, made me bolder, as long as it was coming from a place of truth it was a good start.
*that’s how i remember it anyway.
“Right To The Rails” by Emperor X
Before I started my first post-highschool band in 2004, I wanted to record some songs to show the prospective musicians. I didn’t have any instruments, I just wanted to do it a cappella. I went into this engineer’s room in Gainesville, Florida and sat down and just started singing. The engineer was Chad Matheny, who left Gainesville later that year, only to return as the singer/songwriter, Emperor X. When I heard this song Emperor X was playing it in a small community center just up the road from the university. The verses are mysterious, with references to places and things that I had no connection to, some of them are even made up words, but when he got to the end, it’s just one word. “Go!” Well, one word a hundred and fifty times. Or more I don’t know, you try to count them, lemme know the number. But you see, it’s a command, like “break on through to the other side,” or even “stir it up.” Command songs resonate with me, they’re action songs. They don’t just sit passively as you listen to them, they subtly tell you what to do in order to make your world more like the world in the song. Maybe it’s some kind of musical marketing, like “call now”, “find out more” or “visit a store today!” The call to action binds you to the music. After listening to this I wanted to go! I don’t know where, but I just wanted to. To some degree the song was also a powerful lesson in the effectiveness of simple lyrical layering. To me it was inspiring on many levels. And the video looks like it was filmed on a flip phone. To me that just adds to the unvarnished charm.
“When the Levee Breaks” the Led Zeppelin Version
There’s been a lot written about this song, and the production of it is so layered and intriguing that it’s worth looking up how it was made. Everything from its original production in 1927 by Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, to engineer Andy Johns hanging a single stereo mic from the third floor staircase of Led Zeppelin’s Headley Grange studio sessions in 1970. Everything about it is dripping with awesome weight and fecund creative energy. For me it was what inspired me to pick up an old instrument from my childhood and incorporate it into songs I do live, as well as in the studio. The harmonica. And as such it garners a mention on this list.
As music has changed my life, these songs moulded and changed my musical journey. Submitted for your appreciation.