Influential albums

12 minute read

My friend Sander asked me on Facebook to share the 10 albums that have been most influential on my life. I’m too lazy to log on to Facebook every day and post something, so I figured I’d do it here.

Also, since ten is obviously not enough, I choose to read it in hexadecimal. That way, I get to pick 16 albums! So here they are, from 0 to F:

0. The Alan Parsons Project - I Robot

“I breakdown in the middle and lose my thread
No one can understand a word that I say”
I Robot

The first real album I discovered on my own, instead of through my parents. I was in my teens and into science-fiction and movie soundtracks. I initially thought this album was based on some movie based on Isaac Asimov’s stories that I didn’t know of.

The instrumental songs really conjure up images that fit with the story this album tells, which is something I haven’t really been able to find in other instrumental music since. Eric Woolfson’s lyrics to the other songs are really well written too: they fit very well with the theme but can also stand alone outside of their context.

This album set me on a path of discovering music through Alan Parsons’s many, many musical connections. Most of the (non-French) albums on this list, I have found directly or indirectly through his music.

I’ve met Parsons a couple of times too, backstage at his concerts. I never knew what to say to him, though, and I always felt awkward.

1. Jacques Brel - Les Marquises

“Six pieds sous terre Jojo
Tu chantes encore”
Les Marquises

Jacques Brel’s swansong: the first album he recorded in ten years, and he passed away less than a year after. It contains some of his finest songs. As always, he expertly mixes deeply personal, emotional songs with funny, observational songs. Also, there’s some politics and a lot of clever wordplay.

Perhaps the most beautiful song on here is Voir un ami pleurer, in which he lists awful things that are all still better than watching a friend cry. My favourite, though, is Orly, about watching a couple’s heart-breaking goodbye at an airport. In my twenties, I spent a few months making a translation into Dutch, which gave me a whole new respect for Brel as a poet.

2. Camel - Rajaz

“When a poet sings the song and all are hypnotised” Rajaz

Not Camel’s most well-known album, but then, Camel as a band are not the most well-known either. All of their albums are great, but I’m choosing this album because it was the one they were touring when I went to see them in concert for the first time, and simply because it’s my favourite.

Andy Latimer’s guitar work is similar to that of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, but just ever so slightly better. This album sets a laid-back, desert mood that it keeps consistently from beginning to end.

It’s one of those very few albums that I keep listening to, year after year. When I went to Morocco a couple of years ago, I made a point of listening to it during my camel ride through the Sahara desert.

3. Marillion - Brave

“It’s a sign of the times
We believe anything and nothing”

It was a close call between this and Misplaced Childhood, but I remember from my early twenties that Brave was consistently in my top 3 desert island albums, so that’s gotta count for something, right?

Brave is a tight, atmospheric, emotional album. Steve Hogarth’s vocals are at their very best here. It’s beautiful. One of my all-time favourite albums.

Play it loud, with the lights off.

4. Vangelis - 1492 Conquest of Paradise

1492 Conquest of Paradise

I use this instrumental album as a tool: it helps me write prose. If I want to write documentation, a blog post, or something else that’s long and in English or Dutch, I put this album on. Anything with lyrics will distract me, and no music at all will distract me as well, especially when I’m in a noisy environment.

This album is the soundtrack to the movie with the same name, about Columbus’s voyage to the New World. I still remember watching the video clip to the title track on tv in 1992, when the album was released. Many years later I also watched the movie, but I didn’t care for it much. I still love the music though.

5. Michel Fugain - C’est pas de l’amour… mais c’est tout comme

“Encore cent fois boire au ruisseau
Du plaisir et des larmes”
C'est pas de l'amour... mais c'est tout comme

It feels like cheating to include a 3 cd compilation box set, but it’s the only one I know of that includes the two songs that are most important to me.

Fugain’s music was not only a big influence on my life, but on that of my parents as well. They adopted Le chiffon rouge as an anthem of sorts when they were younger than I am now. I went to a Fugain concert with my mom one time, and she looked around the room and said “I feel like one of the youngest people in the audience!”

More recently, when my wife and I were still dating, the song Encore randomly came up in a playlist I had put on, and she instantly loved it. So much so, that we played it almost every day to our unborn daughter, and even in our wedding ceremony.

I mean, Une belle histoire is great too, of course.

6. Johnny Cash - Out Among the Stars

“Lets gather up our scattered words of love
and make them rhyme”
Out Among the Stars

Another album from when I was still dating my wife. She has this cd in her car, where we still play it a lot.

Before this, I knew and loved Hurt, but I didn’t care much for the rest of his repertoire. I thought it was kind of boring. Listening to this album, which is really a collection of posthumous outtakes, I started seeing Cash in a different light: sometimes funny, sometimes poetic, often clever with words, and he always has a catchy melody that will remain stuck in your head for a long time. Just like Jacques Brel, really.

We played Baby Ride Easy in our wedding ceremony.

7. Jean Ferrat - 91

“Nul ne guérit de son enfance” 91

Jean Ferrat has a golden voice.

I actually met the man once: we were at a festival near Paris, and he happened to be signing autographs at a booth nearby, so we thought: why not go and stand in line? I remember my conversation word-for-word:

Ferrat: Ton nom?
Me: J - A - N

I always have to spell my name when I’m in France, or they’ll mangle it.

That’s it. I will cherish this memory forever.

Anyway, when I was little, my mom, my sister and I would go to France to visit friends about twice a year, and we’d always play this album at least once in the car. It will always remind me of those long trips.

8. Porcupine Tree - In Absentia

“I got books that I never ever read” In Absentia

I’d heard some Porcupine Tree before I discovered In Absentia, but randomly hearing Collapse the Light into Earth on the radio was what finally got me hooked. The song is the same five chords repeated over and over, but it never gets boring.

The rest of the album is great too. I especially love the vocal harmonies that Wilson sings with himself.

This album started my hate-love relationship with Steven Wilson’s music. There have been times when I’d list him as my favourite artist of all times, and times when I was thoroughly disappointed with everything he did.The fact remains that Steven Wilson is the person I’ve seen live most often, whether with Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, or solo – with the exception of John Miles, who I see every year at Night of the Proms.

9. King Crimson - Absent Lovers

“I do remember one thing
It took hours and hours but
By the time I was done with it
I was so involved, I didn’t know what to think”
Absent Lovers

It took me over ten years to get into King Crimson. Every once in a while I’d put on In the Court of the Crimson King because someone was raving about it online, and each time I’d go meh. Until one day someone posted a track from this album on Reddit. I don’t even remember which one; I think it may have been Industry. I listened to it and thought: this is very different from In the Court of the Crimson King! I actually like this!

I bought the album and listened to it obsessively for a few months. Then I started ‘spiralling’: this album is from a time about halfway through King Crimons’s career, so I’d get one album from before, one after, one before again, etc. It turned out that there’s no single King Crimson: each phase in their career is very, very different. Eventually I returned to the Court, and the “fungus effect” had finally done its work: it had grown on me. I like it!

Whatever King Crimson do, one may like it or not, but it’s always interesting. Case in point: their current line-up consists of three(!) drummers who are seated at the front of the stage, with the rest of the band standing on a little platform behind them. I love that they experiment like that.

A. Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon

“The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death”
The Dark Side of the Moon

I mean, what can I say about this classic that hasn’t been said a million times before?

Well, maybe this: if you think this album is good, try listening to Alan Parsons’s original quadrophonic surround mix (yes, that Alan Parsons). The whole album was made with surround in mind, and it shows. I don’t know enough superlatives to tell you how good it is. There’s no room in our current home to set up my surround stereo, and I do miss it sometimes.

Also let me go on the record here: I want The Great Gig in the Sky to be played at my funeral. Which will be, you know, at least 60 years from now.

B. Riverside - Out of Myself

“There’s sadness in my mind - ok
There’s darkness in my mind - ok
Thoughts echoing in my mind - ok
Everything is gonna be…”
Out of Myself

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I was not very motivated to work on my master’s thesis. I spent a lot of the time I should have been researching or writing on basically anything else. I started studying Lojban, that’s how unmotivated I was to do actual work. But when I did want to get some work done, there were two albums that I’d put on to get me in the mood. This was one of them.

Riverside were a new band back then; not many people had heard of them yet. But a friend and I were listening to anything prog rock we could get our hands on, and this album really stuck. 15 years have passed, they’ve released many new albums since, and I still love them. I’ve seen them live many times.

C. The Beatles - Abbey Road

“And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make”
Abbey Road

I could probably argue that The Beatles have been influential in almost everybody’s life, directly or indirectly. But that would be too easy.

Early in school, I was around 11 years old, our teacher would play the guitar and teach us Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da and Let It Be. Also around that time there was a radio show that played some sort of “Best of The Beatles”, that I recorded on a cassette tape.

Abbey Road was probably the first album I bought, after hearing Come Together on the radio and thinking it was a pretty cool song. Currently, I really love the medley that closes the album.

In the end, I even did a Coursera online course on The Beatles, filled with fascinating trivia that I’ve almost completely forgotten by now.

D. Lazuli - En avant doute…

“Ce n’est que sur nos visages
Que les années laissent les traces de leur passage”
En avant doute...

As you can see from this list, I love me some prog rock, and I also love me some French chanson. Lazuli is the first (and so far, only) band I’ve found that combines the two.

I went to a festival where they played. I didn’t know them yet, so I decided to go check them out. But then, for some reason, I didn’t. I did get their cd though, just to see what kind of music it was. And I could kick myself: the music was amazing. Why didn’t I skip one of those other bands to go see this one!?

And not just the music is great; the lyrics are beautiful as well.

Interesting piece of trivia: one of the band members lost control over his arm in a motorcycle accident, so he invented an instrument that he could play with one arm. It’s a MIDI device that looks and sounds like a slide guitar. He plays some gorgeous solos with it.

E. Kevin Gilbert - Thud

“The baby boomers had it all
And wasted everything
Now recess is almost over
And they won’t get off the swing”

You probably have never heard about Kevin Gilbert, but he’s worked with a surprising amount of really well-known people such as Michael Jackson, Madonna and Sheryl Crow, his ex-girlfriend. Sadly, he died way too young.

This album has made a huge impression on me, mainly because of the first and last songs on the album. The first song, When You Give Your Love to Me, is one of the happiest and funniest songs I know, while the last song, Song for a Dead Friend, is one of the most heart-breaking, depressing ones. It was, in fact, the inspiration for my Spotify playlist of depressing songs (along with Johnny Cash’s Hurt, of course).

F. Big Big Train - English Electric (Part One)

“A river flowing from the chalkhills
Through the water meadows and the open fields”
English Electric (Part One)

A British band with a unique sound. Their lyrics are often descriptions of certain aspects of English country side or Victorian history. Curiously, they’ve also done a 17 minute song about Jacques Brel, called The Wide Open Sea. Pretty great!

Also curiously, their drummer, American-born Nick D’Virgilio, was a close friend of Kevin Gilbert.

English Electric (Part One) is probably the most relaxing album I know. I listen to it whenever I’m tired on my commute, which is more often than I’d like. Also, the chorus to Winchester from St Giles’ Hill is some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.