And just like that the gauntlet had been tossed, without cause, provocation, or ceremony. In the blink of an eye, I had been challenged. In less than an instant, I declined.
I reflexively steer clear of the mass-produced trend du jour. A policy that has served me well, as I see videos of those poor bastards roped into the ice water challenge, cinnamon challenge, or the Tide pod challenge, because of their FOMO or their blatant stupidity. I like to think there is a special place in hell for those individuals who think nothing of flooding the news feeds of others with ‘look at me’ challenges or worse, those re-post prayer chains that threaten certain death for a person that nobody knows if the chain is broken.
But this challenge was different. It wasn’t a challenge, per se, but more of a dare. I had been challenged via a social media acquaintance, to reveal the Top Ten most influential albums of my youth. I was to post one album per day for ten consecutive days. The posts were to include the name of the album, a picture of the album’s cover and a brief tag about why this album was significant. This challenge in particular appealed to me because it was asking me to do something I had never done before. It was offering me the chance to define the soundtrack of my youth, those few precious, fragile and formative years responsible for developing me into the first adult version of myself that I would present to the world.
What would my life’s playlist look like? In contemplating this challenge and, subsequently, this article, images of album covers and LP jackets began to whoosh through my mind at warp speed. Unlike the majority of you, my life’s Top Ten albums were actually ALBUMS. 12 inches of vinyl encased between two pieces of tattered cardboard. My personal wax treasures, kept in a guarded place, away from excess heat and the grimy hands of my little sister. At face value, these discs weren’t worth much, but with every listen, they became emotionally priceless.
There is something to be said for the ritual of listening to an album: Gently removing the record from its casing; the static electricity created as you slide off its plastic sleeve; swiping the velvet covered pad with wooden handle to remove any dust from the shiny surface and mastering the deft ability of dropping the needle precisely between tracks – perfectly timed and aligned as to avoid any noise from the previous track while providing a clean intro into the next one.
Back then there was no digital media, no mp3, or compact disks to shuffle. This was the golden age of Hi-Fi stereos, the Sony Walkman (google it), and mixtapes. The skips, snaps, crackles, and pops that come with listening to vinyl records were not seen as imperfections, but more as part of the experience. The static hiss and noise before the first track began built an excitement and anticipation of what was to come. It was considered a feature, not a flaw.
So, what were the results of my Lifetime Top Ten Challenge? (Asked no one, ever). In no particular order, here are the Top Ten most influential albums of my youth.
- 1. The 1961 soundtrack to West Side Story starring the only wood that doesn’t float, Natalie Wood as Maria. This album was my introduction to musical theater. As ignorant as I was, I knew this was something special. Fast forward 20 years when I was able to join the national tour of West Side Story. The only thing better than actually hearing and seeing this iconic musical is being in it.
- 2. Olé, Olé – Charo. This was a promotional copy not intended for distribution. I’m not sure how this album ended up in my possession and I didn’t understand a word of it. All I can remember was that it was 12 inches of bright pink vinyl. The album’s cover was a light blue sky with clip-art style clouds floating by. I drove that album into the ground as I bounced around my bedroom like a Mexican jumping bean shouting,”Olé, olé” at the top of my prepubescent lungs. Did I mention the album was pink? That should have been clue numero uno for Mom and Dad.
- 3. Live and Sleazy – The Village People. Chock full of campy, catchy tunes like In the Navy, Macho Man and Y.M.C.A., what’s not to love from this over-the-top, completely contrived rock and roll band of wannabes? (Hint number 2 for Mom and Dad).
- 4. Grease! 1978 movie soundtrack. I’m proud to admit that I played this double-album set so many times, I broke two phonograph needles. A fact that means nothing to the digital age but for those of us in the know, that boils down to a LOT of listening.
- 5. Upstairs at Eric’s – Yaz. This was the ultimate 80’s synth-pop manifesto. A debut album responsible for club classics like Situation, Don’t Go, To Pieces and the soulful ballad, Midnight. Alison Moyet and her asymmetrical haircuts embodied the sound of the 80’s.
- 6. Shaun Cassidy. The self-titled debut album of Shaun Cassidy was on constant rotation in my childhood playlist. This album and specifically the track Da Do Run Run put Cassidy on the U.S. Billboard charts; for me it was those puppy dog eyes, flawless skin and his frosted feathered haircut that score him points in my book. His album was the first to churn homoerotic thoughts in my previously asexual mind.
- 7. Purple Rain – Prince. From the first moment I saw Prince perform, I was hooked. His androgynous style, his flair for over the top costumes and his blatant adoration for all things purple and sparkly made me an instant fan. Seeing the songs of the album Purple Rain come to life in a movie by the same name was ingenious to me and further cemented my appreciation and admiration of his talents.
- 8. Kilroy Was Here – Styx. This was the first concert I ever went to and rooted Styx, in my mind, to be the greatest rock and roll group ever assembled. The Kilroy concert wasn’t just a concert, it was a theatrical experience, complete with plot, costumes, pre-show music video, pyrotechnics and great music. Imagine my chagrin to find out years later that this album and tour in particular was the nail in the group’s coffin. Styx disbanded shortly thereafter. Fortunately they left 10 previous studio albums that I could immerse myself in.
- 9. Jazz – Queen. I stumbled upon the group Queen quite by accident. A family friend originally bought the album on a whim, based upon its title. They were looking for a jazz album, picked up the first record they saw in the record store window only to get it home and realize that this was not the sort of jazz they were looking for. Lucky for me. This album reflected their trademark style and contained eclectic hits such as Mustapha, Don’t Stop Me Now, Bicycle Race, and Let Me Entertain You. Their whimsical delivery combined with musical acrobatics transformed me into a die-hard fan to this day.
- 10. Faith – George Michael. Released in 1987, Faith has become one of the best selling record albums of all time. With hit songs such as I Want Your Sex, Faith, Father Figure and One More Try, this album became part of my emotional and sexual emergence. The album was released during my senior year of high school, a time when I began to question my sexual identity. As it turned out, this album also brought Michael’s sexual identity under scrutiny. Looking back, images of George Michael, clad in a black leather jacket and tight blue jeans, certainly awoke feelings and fantasies inside of me I never knew I had. This album definitely sparked a new beginning.
Music is magical. Science has all but proven the medicinal and rehabilitative powers that music can provide, but there is so much more. One of music’s greatest powers is the power of nostalgia. Music has the unique ability to take you back, all the way back, to a specific time and place. All of the albums in my list take me back to a moment or time period that was significant in my life. Music can trigger deeply nostalgic and emotional experiences enabling us to re-experience the best and worst times of our lives. I know it does for me.
In the words of Louis Armstrong, “Music is life, itself.”
Thanks for reading. Now that you’ve gotten to know a little more about me, tell me a little more about you. Send me an email if you’d like to share the soundtrack of your youth.
Until next time…