10 Records in 10 Days

by Michael Tatum

Well, it looks like no one is going to nominate me to write about ten albums that mean something to me. It's like no one picked for me the baseball team, no girl wants to dance with me! It would make me sad, but instead I'm going to nominate...myself! :)

#1: The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo

When I was nineteen I still hadn't realized that box sets weren't a good idea, so I bought the doorstop by THE BYRDS. Some wonderful music, some lame music, and then I came to the material from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, particularly the songs sung by Gram Parsons. I'd never heard a white man sing so soulfully, with so much feeling, had never had my heart been stirred in such a way. In particular I was entranced by "The Christian Life" which Gram sings half straight, half sarcastically -- are we really to believe he'd forsake his friends and "walk in the light?" Not really, but the gospel for him isn't in the Bible but in music, and you can tell. When I bought the actual album I was annoyed that Roger McGuinn, fine a singer as he is, took the lead on three songs, after having gotten used to the versions on the box set. Gram's "One Hundred Years From Now" remains one of my all time favorite songs. I could sing that song forever. It wasn't until the double CD set for Sweetheart that the takes on the box set were available at a reasonable price, and I actually reprogrammed the CD to the way it was supposed to be heard, with Gram singing the majority of the songs, before Lee Hazelwood stepped in. Anyway, a landmark record, which created "country rock," for better and for worse. And a record that means the world to me, for introducing me to one of America's greatest musical forms.

#2: Turn the Beat Around (1974-1978): The Disco Years, Volume One

When I was a kid I was bombarded by my father with proclamations about how much disco sucked. Like, constantly. So, like any good son, I repeated what he said, not realizing that a few of the artists that meant something to me, like the Pet Shop Boys, owed quite a bit to that genre. This record was the first disco record I ever bought, and man it was an ear opener! More important, I associate it with L, my first girlfriend, who helped me through my adolescent insecurities about sex (like lots of kids with abandonment issues, I feared intimacy) and my own body (too thin, not attractive or so I thought, etc.). And we played this record and Madonna's Erotica constantly, so I associate these two records with that "process."

Briefly, about the music. The two KC and the Sunshine Band tracks are feel-good hedonism at its peak. Incredible songs. Even better are Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way" -- an emotional hurricane. Who doesn't get thrilled at that lead up to the second chorus? And Vicki Sue Robinson's "Turn the Beat Around" (definitely a lifetime favorite) is addictive, for anyone who lives their life through music. Rhino's Dance Floor Divas is a better record. But this record means more to me.

#3: Roxy Music: Siren

I don't often talk about it, but I failed out of UCLA my first year (I got back in and graduated). This was partly because I had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and I was experiencing my first depressive period. But it was also because I really didn't know who I was, and I had a hard time finding my place socially. That is to say, I knew what I didn't like (starting with suburbia), but what DID I like? As happens so often with me, music was a key part to discovery. I spent the year I worked back into UCLA listening to what have been called "proto punk" artists: the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, David Bowie, and ROXY MUSIC. These were my people -- finally!

SIREN is Roxy's fifth record, and by far and away my favorite. Musically, the record combines art rock and dance music, though that shorthand makes them sound a lot more boring than they actually are. They're the "real" Duran Duran. What I really connected to was Bryan Ferry's persona. Ferry, like me, was born working class, and resented the affluent as much as he was fascinated by them (most of my friends had money, as did my girlfriends). He mocked old school romance, yet was an old school romantic himself, the kind of guy who would sing under a woman's window, portraying such feelings as simultaneously pathetic and heroic.

Here is the last verse to Siren's final song, "Just Another High":

Lately it seems so empty here
But I suppose I'm alright
Maybe tomorrow's not so clear
Still I remember that night
Singing to you like this is
My only way to reach you
Though I'm too proud to say it
Oh how I long too see you

How did this guy not write my life? No one does romance like Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. And the music is as vital then as it is now. The soundtrack to my life.

#4: Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

I was home from college and my friend Joe asked me what I had been listening to. "Well, R.E.M., the Pixies . . ." He interrupted me. "Yeah, yeah, we all know about you and alternative stuff. But what about hip hop?" I replied something along the lines that I didn't regard hip hop as "music." It's a wonder Joe didn't slap me upside the head. Instead, he got me incredibly stoned (this is 1991, statute of limitations) and played the second side of PUBLIC ENEMY's IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK.

The first song that queued up -- the intro, really -- is "Show "Em Whatcha Got." It begins with a spellbinding five note saxophone line later sampled in the song "Rumpshaker." Then someone declares, "Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude!" (Boy, is that true in 2018.) Then the drum machine hooks in, and we get a litany of black heroes: "The same god that gave wisdom to Marcus Garvey..." I was transfixed, and I've remained transfixed ever since, even though I gave up pot decades ago. This is one of the most remarkable pieces of music I've ever heard, regardless of genre. And the rest of the album is a powerhouse, great music, lyrics, and performance -- absolutely exciting. Who can resist that bit where leader Chuck D asks the band one by one if they're gonna sell out? You gonna sell out? Hell, no.

#5: Paul Simon: Graceland

If I wanted to be "cool," I would probably cede this spot to a record by Youssou N'Dour, Franco, or Orchestra Baobb, whose "Specialist in All Styles" is definitely high on the life list. Yet to be honest, GRACELAND is where I first heard music from Africa, and man was it a revelation. Also, I really admired the fact that PAUL SIMON hit a creative dead end and, unlike every other baby boomer, reached outside of himself and became a world traveler, and in doing so revived his career both commercially and aesthetically. And those guitars! That bass! Those rhythms! It would be some time before I knew where to take my fascination with these sounds next further than Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the choral group that appears on "Homeless" and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." Before then however, there were these marvelous songs. The chorus of "Gumboots" -- "You don't feel you love me but I feel you could" -- is one to quote. And "You Can Call Me Al" is almost as good as "Once in a Lifetime," a song in which alienation is cured by connecting to the divine, or at least something outside of yourself. Music? Why not?

#6: Sonic Youth: Dirty

SONIC YOUTH are a hard sell -- people either dislike them, or like me, call them one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Much of my affection for them has to do with my background. I grew up in a very anodyne section of northern San Diego county, and though there are a lot of nice people here, I was bored out of my mind. In other words, I had to hear INXS, "Phantom of the Opera," Depeche Mode, "Cats," and a lot of other shit I couldn't stand when I was growing up. Real awful, boring, lame, music. Then I heard Sonic Youth when I was working at Sam Goody and I fell in love. The perfect melding of beautiful noise and genuine melody into an original rock and roll sound that pretty much directed my listening habits into the '90s.

DIRTY probably isn't their best album, but it's certainly the one that means the most to me. First girlfriend L. and I played it to death. Kim Gordon plays a harassed secretary, a junkie abused by her boyfriend, a "drunken butterfly" who can recite Heart song titles, and more. Thurston Moore spins off actual poetry and comes out for "Youth Against Fascism," declaring "I believe Anita Hill" when others wouldn't. And that noise, that gorgeous noise. Music to my ears!

#7: Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Once again, my choice of this record goes far beyond artistic quality, which in this case is certainly high. There's some symbolic importance as well. First, RAY CHARLES fought for artistic control, got it, and it paid off for him. Also, MODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY AND WESTERN MUSIC is a great example of an artist going outside his "comfort zone," as with the Byrds and country, Talking Heads and Afropop, David Bowie and Philadelphia soul. And on a personal note, Ray Charles was the second soul singer who won my heart, after Sam Cooke, and although I love me some Sam, Ray is an a league all of his own. Yes, you don't hear his piano or his way around rhythms quite like you do with the Atlantic sides. But when the singing and the songs are this good, who cares? A masterpiece. And "You Don't Know Me" makes me cry every time. I must relate to it.

#8: The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever . .

I had to save one slot for dance/electronica, and my pick is a little on the unconventional side. There are records in this genre that are objectively greater, records that mean more to be personally (Tricky's Maxinquaye), intellectually (the first two DJ Shadow records), or are just plain classics (M. People's Elegant Slumming, Moby's Play). But the post-modernist joker in me went bonkers when a bunch of kids with laptops welded together, say, the music from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to the vocal of "Bootylicious." I was nuts about these things -- I really thought for five minutes they would take over the world. But, alas, much as "The Flying Saucer" or my boyhood favorites from Ray Stevens proved, you can only take novelty so far. So THE BEST BOOTLEGS IN THE WORLD . . . EVER is the cream. And, since the originals were "illegal" due to mean old copyright laws ("Fair Use?" I digress) the record itself doesn't technically "exist." These days, you're probably better off downloading this thing off the net than finding a physical copy. Nevertheless, one of the treasures of my collection. The Strokes vs. Christina Aguilera? Salt n' Pepa vs. the Stooges? Eminem vs. Depeche Mode? One of the most delightful records ever made.

#9: Sebadoh: Bakesale

Most of the records I've picked so far for this "10 records in 10 days" thing have not just been all-time favorites of mine, they've also had symbolic significance: when I discovered this, that, the other. My last two picks are more reflective of me personally.

The nineties were not really known for great love songs, particularly when you're talking about male indie rockers, which were a main staple of my musical diet at the time. That's what makes SEBADOH so special, BAKESALE in particular. Think about Taylor Swift -- all of her fans have memorized her romantic travails, read her romances into her lyrics, and perhaps also relate to them on a personal level. That's what Sebadoh offered to many guys in my collegiate demographic in the nineties. We all knew Lou Barlow's girlfriend left him for the band's lawyer, that he won her back through the songs he wrote for her. We also knew that Lou wrote songs about fallouts with his friends, like drummer Eric Gaffney, who left the band prior to the release of this record. And Gaffney actually plays on the songs written about him! Then we have Jason Lowenstein, who had his heart "broken" by a woman who wasn't in love with him (she was a lesbian, give her a break!) and he had HER play drums on HIS songs as well! Such Fleetwood Mac levels of drama, no?

So many great relationship songs on this record. I'll mention the two that are lifetime favorites of mine. Jason's "Careful" is about waiting for the other person to drop her guard before you drop yours -- the final lines, "Twice as hard to fool us/Twice as hard to fool us," always make my hair stand on end. Lou's "Together or Alone" is a tour de force, plain and simple. The whole damn thing is quotable, but let me leave you with the last verse:

Set up for a let-down
These things happen all the time
And I'm not longing to explore it again
I'm too scared of what you'll find
And this confusion wears me down
But I'll smile when I'm with you
'cause there's so much we could do
Together or alone
I'm not afraid of being alone/p>

The honesty level is amazing -- no matter how screwed up, needy, codependent, withdrawn, guarded, angry or whatever, no matter how bad it makes them look, they'll write a song about it. This has been an inspiration to me in my own writing -- don't turn away from anything if you can turn it into art. And the noisy but melodic garage rock is music to my ears. A great one.

#10: The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs

I couldn't complete this list of ten albums in ten days without talking about my favorite album of all time. It could have been the Beatles. It could have been the Velvet Underground. But no, it's . . .

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS' 69 LOVE SONGS hit me at the right time. I was missing my then-girlfriend, who was teaching English abroad. I bought volume three on a particularly sad day, and here was this uber-bass (that's resident genius Stephin Merritt) singing about girls in their underwear, boys in their underwear, l'amour and "la mort." This was a guy with a serious sense of humor. I immediately bought the other volumes in quick succession when I should have bought the box plus book, but maybe that was the way it should have happened -- open the presents one by one. I don't think there's ever been a treasure trove of songs like these three CDs. The real subject of Merritt's examination isn't love, though there's that, but sarcasm and humor, its uses and its limits. He jokes when he's sad, to create distance between himself and the world. He puts a sting in the tail when he's happy, because happiness is fragile. He sings from the point of view of a gay man (his own), but also a straight man, a straight woman, you name it, and asks his friends to add vocal variety. He creates indelible melodies and remarkable homemade arrangements, because that's his gift. The girlfriend and I broke up four years later, but this record and I, I'm happy to say, are still dating. Maybe one day I'll pop the question: why are so you goddamn amazing? Best record of the 20th century. Subjectively rather than objectively Kind of Blue and Sgt. Pepper fans, and isn't that more interesting? And that's the secret of lists.

June 6-15, 2018, Facebook