Known Johnson

June 6, 2006

The big six for June 6, 2006

Filed under: Music — Tom @ 11:43 am

A special list for this special day: Six albums that are directly responsible pretty much everything I love in music. And why:

The Beatles – Reel Music: It always goes back to the Beatles, doesn’t it? Why would I dare include this, a lame compilation instead of one of the sacred albums? Because this really was the first. A nine or ten year old me listening to this in the back of my dad’s pickup truck on a little boombox with friends. I didn’t even really know what I was listening to at the time. It obviously meant something to me because half of my listening choices today reflect back on what the Beatles were playing in the bed of the truck when I was a kid.

Def Leppard – Pyromania: The soundtrack to countless camping trips with my friend Matt as a kid, Pyromania would blast from the cabover bunk of the motorhome as we made our way from place to place with my parents. More than just a soundtrack to those trips, this is, without a doubt, one of the greatest hard rock albums of all time. There isn’t a bad or wasted moment on it – from start to finish, it’s one solid wall of simmering, burning guitars, great hooks, and catchy choruses. Not a hint of filler. Well, except for that weird drum-loop thing that winds out the album.

Rush – Presto: When I was a teenager, I would regularly lull myself to sleep with music. Usually a tape in my Walkman was the preferred method, but sometimes one of the two good local rock stations, 98 KUPD or 93.3 KDKB, would do the job. One night, the moment my headphones went on, I heard something I immediately knew I wanted more of, but when the song ended it faded directly into another song, and I never heard who the band was. In those pre-internet days, it just wasn’t possible to Google the lyrics, so I kept listening, night after night, hoping I’d run into the song again. Sure enough, many nights later, the song came on again and, afterwards, the announcer gave me what I needed to hear. Two words: Rush, and Presto, the title of which was the very song I’d been listening to. I knew something was very different when I picked up that cassette in the Wherehouse – it just looked different than everything else I listened to. So minimal – no gaudy mascots, no garish colors, no cheesy band photographs. So . . . classy. I bought it with little hesitation. When I got home I anxiously listened to it, there in my room, on my little home stereo, and then I listened again. The lyrics were something worth reading through more than once. The band played a lot in each song, yet it felt right (in years to come, of course, I’d find that I was among a small, but extremely devoted legion of fans who feel that way.) Everything felt different and beautiful and right in a way I’d never heard music sound before. Seventeen years later, it still feels exactly the same way.

Bill Frisell – Live: My first real exposure to jazz was either John Coltrane’s Sun Ship or this – time has erased the gap between the two, but it matters little. Either way, I was in way over my head. I bought both in quick succession, but found Sun Ship simply way too much and traded it in shortly. Somehow, I held on to Live – something about it spoke to me. Frisell’s twisting, turning, yearning guitar kept me baffled for years about what was really going on. It didn’t help that bassist Kermit Driscoll worked similarly odd lines on his instrument, and that drummer Joey Baron refused to play a straight beat, or even play normally, clacking and clanging about his kit instead of just hitting the cymbals and drumheads. Perhaps it was the billing on the wrapper of Frisell being “jazz guitar’s Hendrix” that kept me coming back, but I just knew there had to be something serious going on with this guy. I was right.

King Crimson – Thrak: Just because King Crimson is one of my all-time favorites of all-time doesn’t mean that I have to trot out the old standard In the Court of the Crimson King. I don’t particularly care for it, regardless of it’s standing as a prog-classic. The one that I return to, time and time again, is 1995’s Thrak. Not because it was my first – because it wasn’t – but because it was the first that really involved me in the music. The rest that I had up to that point – Starless and Bible Black, Red, Discipline, Beat – I listened to, but not into. Thrak got me to sit down and really tear apart the music, listening for each note and how it reflected on what another musician was playing – like good free jazz would cause you to do. It’s probably no coincidence that jazz was just starting to make a serious dent in my musical life at this point. Where many have come and gone, however, King Crimson has stayed.

Guided By Voices/Robert Pollard (in general) It all comes back to the Beatles, doesn’t it? In a roundabout fashion, I mean – Guided By Voices is about everything that’s happened in rock in the past 40 years, but the Beatles (among many, many others) are a big part of that. Where King Crimson got me to be hypercritical, Guided By Voices allowed me to free myself from that and simply listen to the song again. Because that’s how you have to take Guided By Voices – purely on the quality of the song. The recording quality varies so greatly, from the lowest of lo-fi boombox recordings to polished studio material, that you either settle on a few higher quality ones and go no further, or you just give up on the band altogether, or, like me, you just give in and embrace it all. Hidden under the hiss and the rumble, mixed in with the jump-cuts and jumbled song structures, the dedicated listener can find some of the finest rough-cut gems rock music has to offer. That Pollard makes little effort to make it easy on us makes it all that much better. Where many musicians obsess over making sure every note is nuanced and perfect, Pollard simply wants to get his music done and heard and will do whatever he needs to do so, including putting it out, quickly, under countless pseudonyms that keep the followers on their toes. With a mind this creative, asking him to overdub a flubbed note will simply stifle him. Better to let him get on to his next 30-second long gem. As the joke he says goes, he comes up with 5 songs sitting on the toilet, and 3 of them are good. Why hold that back?

It’s pretty easy for me to see how these form a strong backbone of my musical self. It’s not all I listen to, but the majority of what I listen to branches off from directions set in motion by each of these. It’s really rather amazing how simple it gets when you trace it all back to the roots.



  1. All I can say is, Rush is everything.

    Comment by Ree — June 10, 2006 @ 6:48 am | Reply

  2. In case you or your readers will be in our area, Bill Frisell will accompany films by Keaton, Woodring, and Morrison at MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art).

    The show is Saturday, August 4 at 8:30 PM. Tickets are $22 advance, $26 day of show.

    MASS MoCA is in northern Berkshire County. For more information or to purchase tickets, call the box office at (413)MoCA-111 or visit us online at


    Comment by MASS MoCA — July 24, 2006 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

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