Updated: Jun 19
So, here's a project where I'm riffing on that game folks like to spread around on the facebooks -- '10 Albums that Made Me Who I Am.' My whole life has been essentially an extended version of that game, and recently I actually went ahead and compiled a list of 288 albums that I felt fit the bill -- albums where the whole disc infiltrated my idea of what music could be and should be.
The following tracks are all my creations made to the best of my ability as fakes, forgeries, attempts to pass as something off of albums that were important to me. I'm starting with 10, ten counterfeits paying homage to records randomly selected from my master list of 288.
1. 'Kid Griffin'
[Bricolage, 1997. Amon Tobin]
My attempt to pull off a track that's as dark yet luminous, utterly digital-chemical yet organic to the point of amniotic, metallic-tasting and yet everything velvet-lined with an opalescent sheen -- I'm taking 'bout Amon Tobin's 1997 album Bricolage which definitely opened up new vistas to me as far as what electronic music was capable of. I was handed this disc by some bandmates who wanted me to understand what they meant by the term drum 'n' bass; that was a poor move, Amon Tobin can pull some drum 'n' bass flavored moves, but he makes just about anything else in that genre sound like blustering gouche club music while his stuff eases past through timeless oceans full of massive cybernetic trilobites.
2. 'On Your Knees'
[Sleeping With the Enemy, 1992. Paris]
I went to Laguardia, NYC's specialized high school for Music, Art and the Performing Arts. We came from all over New York City and we were an amazing rabble of crazy, over the top and wildly diverse kids, and as soon as I left there it became very clear that the rest of America wasn't really cool with crazy, over the top or wildly diverse. I started listening to a lot of stern and angry hip hop: Public Enemy, the Coup, KRS One were all in heavy rotation, but harshest and most militant was Paris; I had his 1992 album Sleeping With The Enemy on cassette. As a nation, we haven’t addressed hardly any of his issues — police brutality, inequal treatment under the law, endless wars abroad to further white America’s business concerns and the confusion and self-hatred perpetuated in youth culture by popular music and mainstream media. I did my best with this track, but still feel pretty inadequate to the needs of America’s conscience.
[To the 5 Boroughs, 2004. Beastie Boys]
As a transplanted New Yorker far from home, I was always glad the Beastie Boys were consistent, I could count on them to be tasty and clever and they just kept getting better at representing ‘fresh’. Other artists that I loved better could put out records that disappointed me, like, not every Tom Waits album thrills me as much as Raindogs or Bone Machine, but starting with Paul’s Boutique I never felt let down by a new Beastie Boys album. To the 5 Boroughs (2004) was an avowed love letter to the city of New York, and I’m glad to wrap myself up in that particular flag. This track isn’t as much of a shout out to the city as I would have liked, but I think it’s got some of that bristly ‘party for your right to fight intolerance and greed’ vibe that this album had. And I realize my riff on Godzilla vs Megalon is more of a throwback to their 1998 Hello Nasty, but hey, I’m doing my best here…
4. 'Ao Vento'
[Brazilliance (vol. 1), 1955. Laurindo Almeida Quartet feat. Bud Shank]
I really don’t remember when this crept into my collection, it was definitely as I was starting to find my feet as a musician, a time when I wanted to see the boundaries between stable genres pushed and shoved, and here were two guys doing it effortlessly with such grit but also with elegance. This record came out before Bossa Nova made its splash in the US, just slightly; Laurindo Almeida called it ‘samba jazz’ and the smoothness of this tight little quartet almost keeps you from noticing how startling some of the places they go are. I loved trying to make a make-believe latin standard and then to swing and swoon and samba a bit all around it; Ao Vento means ‘To the Wind’. I really mourn my inabillity to capture that mellow fuzzy tone a jazz record from 1953 is just going to inhabit so naturally.
5. 'New Pneumonia Blues'
[Times Ain’t Nothing Like They Used To Be: Early American Rural Music vol. 2 - (1997)]
This series of compilations from Yazoo Records was very important to my development as a folk musician newly arrived in the rural South. When I moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1998 I was still new to the idea that all banjo and fiddle music wasn't to be immediately labeled (and to some extent discounted) as 'bluegrass'. Living musicians helped me to understand that there was quite a bit more to roots music in the US, but long dead musicians taught me more, and these albums did for me what Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music appears to have done for America in the 50's, I experienced a personal folk revival listening to a wealth of old scratchy recordings made before the record industry had quite gained enough power that it could dictate terms as far as content and genre.
[Under the Skin - Original Soundtrack Album, 2014. Mica Levi]
As I get older I think gets harder and harder to open up and let an album really do its job, but I really hope I never callus over to the extent that I can't let new work in. Mica Levi came to my odd hermit notice as a really cool folk-punk-freak rock phenomenon and then keeps demonstrating unexpected talents and getting much deserved hookups, she did this soundtrack and I finally saw the movie when I started doing this track and its pretty baller as well. Among the things I did in producing my counterfeit here was flounder around in the mud as night fell in the swamp down below my home recording sewer drains and woodland ambiences.
7. 'If I Had My Way'
[The Roots Of Rap: Classic Recordings from the 1920's and 30's. 1996.]
It was weirdly daring of Yazoo records to put this collection out under a title like that, as I don't think the devotees of rap and old 'vernacular' records overlap much, but this was right up my alley and came at a time that was unlocking so much for me in the continuity of what I insist is real Americana, the full spectrum of jazz, country, blues, folk, funk, punk, hip hop, rock... yeah, dig it. This is a gospel blues number that has been passed around a lot, but the version that made me stop and take notice was the one that appears on this compilation, performed by Blind Willie Johnson. I've made my version a bit more locked down to a beat, just amplifying the hip hop nature of it perhaps, and the 'band' comes off sounding more like the Memphis Jug Band, whose 'Whitewash Station' on this disc was also an ear-opener for me.
8. 'Spirit Giant'
[Dream Theory In Malaya, 1981. Jon Hassell.]
I suppose this whole 'declare your favorite and most influential record albums' thing on social media runs a serious danger of just being an exercise in 'how cool am I?', and putting this album on my big master list feels a touch disingenuous. I did not learn about this album until very recently, and my knowledge of Jon Hassell was spotty and very incomplete until the internet ripened enough that every obscure bit of hipster cool was made easily accessible even to cheapskates like me. But Jon Hassell's coolness had been rubbing off on all sorts of people and thereafter on me for quite a while, for instance, Brian Eno went straight from session recordings with Hassell for this album to go record 'My Life In The Bush of Ghosts' with David Byrne and that album was possibly the most important soil amendment to my early days of deciding what sort of sonic atmospheres I wanted to live in. The whole concept of making music that tries its level best to defy the constraints of time and place and the prejudices of our inherited cultural norms, Jon Hassell's work was a mission statement for what I consider my aesthetic and I hardly knew it.
9. 'Jack Be Nimble'
[Ethno Punk: Around the World With Attitude, 1996. Compilation]
May of 2020 is going out in riots and fire provoked by police brutality that has been going on I guess since the moment one group of hominids decided they deserved a better life than another group of hominids. Trouble is we've really hardwired this society with systemic injustice and inequality and yet keep patting ourselves on the back for what a good job we've done making good on the 'liberty and justice for all' idealism a bunch of jihadists and slavedrivers brought forth on stolen land back a couple centuries ago. So yeah, I'm feeling like standing with multi-cultural punk rockers who want to navigate a brave new world where the lives of the working class are respected more than the quest for more and more ownership of money and property, world-wide.
10. 'There'll Be A Storm'
[Broadchurch - Original Soundtrack, 2015. Ólafur Arnalds]
This was the soundtrack to the first season of a BBC crime drama and the music despite being done in a hurry was such perfection. Supremely moody and atmospheric and heartbreaking, Arnald's music illustrates this small community as it confronts tragedy and horror. Everyone in that show is in parts honorable, conflicted, damaged, and the unravelling of Broadchurch demonstrates that crime is always unexpected and yet banal and ingrained into the fabric of being human. I feel a bit like a sucker for liking this album so well, it's kind of cool, clean and glossy in ways I often dislike, and yet cinematic chamber music for strings and sort of 'illbient' beats? -- yeah, I'm down, and I'm glad I got put to the task of trying to inhabit that same space.
11. 'The Silence In Between'
[Zooropa, 1993. U2]
If I was in danger of seeming art-school pretentious, listening only to difficult and obscure music, this one ought to suitably sully my reputation -- I loved early 90's U2. I wasn't even cool enough to have gone through a U2 phase back when they were in their earnest roots-rocker heyday; nope, I loved the U2 albums that my friends mostly reviled, the sudden techno-pop reversal where the band utterly changed their sound and aesthetic to very chemical, digital, psychotropic rave-inflected electronic dance music. It was all just so hyper-saturated, so incandescent, and of course Brian Eno was a big part of the reason I loved it. I was kind of straight-edge when it came to drugs throughout high school and all through college, and I sort of resented the fact that this sound and this scene was so took up with drugs, because I didn't feel it necessary at all, this wasnt drug-music to me, this was music from the world my ears were from.
12. 'Danzas Chapetonas'
[Traditional Music of Peru Vol. 5: Celebrating Divinity in the High Andes - 1999.]
What an amazing album, and what an amazing object lesson in what we should be recognizing when we use the word 'Americana.' The music of the Americas is the product of such a horrific upheaval and such bloody shame. And how I could I ever wish it were different -- or rather -- a beautiful thing was born of slavery and genocide, I myself am a product of this, how can I fully regret it? The sick experiment, the recipe for a folk music curse, take the blood of Africa, the blood of America and then glaze European music over all of it. In the case of mountainous Peru there's far less of Africa than we are used to in the US, but far more of Native American folk culture. Whistles and flutes, rattles and legbells, a particular sacral worldview applied to European Christian ceremonial, violins, harps, brass band instruments. Just the sound of those parade drums, heavy, thick skins with brittle buzzing snares... so particular. It's an honor just to touch this sound for an instant.
13. 'Oh Mercy!'
[Diamonds And Pearls, 1991. Prince]
My first ever apartment was a sublet from a favorite English Professor in Rego Park, Queens, and I spent that summer dancing to my roomate's cassette tape of this album pretty much every morning. It's so unabashedly exuberant! There's so much to learn about American popular music listening to Prince -- and so much to learn about what America should represent: freedom from constraint. A celebration of the desire to please going hand in hand with a desire for pleasure -- I certainly enjoyed squeezing some William Blake into this track. And I also enjoyed reveling in that stupid glossy 90's 'urban' R'n'B sound: hip hop with so much squeaky clean digital compression slathered on, so many MIDI layers to the sandwich you can hardly bite into it.
14. 'Cagknia: Two Folk Dance Songs'
[Music of the World's Peoples Vol.4. 1958.]
This fantastic collection put out by Smithsonian Folkways Records completely and utterly blew my little mind when I was a young 'un. Compiled by the composer Henry Cowell, I believe as audio examples for classes in world music he was teaching, Smithsonian put these tracks out in 1958. They are wildly expansive, taking in a tremendous array of styles and regions, and I think one of the most important things for me, it doesn't arrange the music into groups, there isn't a disc of European folk and another disc of African folk, its a crazy quilt, and unlike a lot of ethnographic surveys, presents my ancestral peoples - white Europeans on the same footing and mixed right in along with music from Australia, Asia, Africa, the Americas. I feel like I learned to listen with these albums: if something sounded bizarre and incomprehensible, well, other humans somewhere in the world felt about these sounds the way I would about the music I was comfortable with, so obviously it was my job to figure out the common ground. My presentation here is a common-ground experiment, the melodies are from the Austrian track on disc 4, a set of tunes in 5/4, and I've arranged them with favorite sounds from other favorites, mostly the tracks from Borneo, Romania and Mexico.
15. 'Queen of Spades'
[Bone Machine, Tom Waits. 1991]
I feel like the gods of randomness blessed me with a sign, I had promised myself to quit this particular go at making these Eidolon tributes after 15 tracks, and surely if a Tom Waits album hadn't turned up I would have felt like I hadn't got my job done. But sure enough, number 15 came up as Bone Machine, probably the single most important album to grab a hold of me when I was first starting to record songs, when I was putting them all down on a 4 track portastudio in a closet I lived in down in Brooklyn. Not only was I amazed by Tom Waits and the musicians he had collected together to play with, but the guy who produced this album also became a distinct person of interest -- Tchad Blake produced at least four other albums I count on my master list of favorites -- I spent quite a bit of time locked away listening to his sonic atmosphere, his choices, it really began to clarify in my mind what a 'producer' did in a music studio. So here's my tribute, the last of these Eidolons for now, I'm really pleased I get to stow it all away having made this one as the epilogue.