The Soundtrack of My Life

I am embarrassed to post this list of music on two levels. One is that it seems presumptuous to think anyone could or should care what music I like. We all have our own tastes in things and it has no cosmic, not even any earthly importance, what I like and what I don’t like. You should not be wasting your time reading things like this.

But I am embarrassed on a second level. This is the very kind of thing I enjoy reading myself. I have spent hours going over the playlists of people I don’t know but have heard of, people I will probably never meet and may not want to meet, just to see if they have what I would call decent taste. Only occasionally do I encounter music that I have not heard of before that sounds intriguing that I go on to look up and discover I love. That is rare, but possible, and its possibility is what I use to justify reading things like this. But it is also true that in some undefinable way, knowing what a person likes helps you understand them in an undefinable way.

Having said all that and made my apologies, I do think music makes a large contribution to our intellectual lives, not so much by giving us specific content as by shaping our attitudes and emotions. So, for future generations of dissertation writers – which I don’t really believe will exist – and for the idly curious net surfer, I will list the music that has most strongly affected me. The list immediately become unwieldy and so I must establish some delimiting parameters. First, I will only list individual albums, not individual songs – albums whose songs collectively attain such a high average quality, in my opinion, as to be particularly noteworthy. Secondly, each artist or group is limited to one place on the list (otherwise people like Bruce Cockburn would dominate it). (I count Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits as distinct – maybe that is cheating but they seem quite different in significance to me.) I include only contemporary music, and I exclude classical music which demands a very different sort of judging criteria.

This will leave out quite a lot of artists whose body of work as a whole has been important to me even though I can’t point to a particular album that made them so. These I will lump together in an honorable mention category at the end. I may do a second “Soundtrack of My Life” to list some of the individual songs not belonging to any of these artists whose influence on me has been substantial. Depends on how embarrassed I would feel, perhaps. Some of my choices are very predictable – I am not entirely a fringe element of this culture – but most of them aren’t. You can see that I am pretty weak on jazz and pretty weak on country music; lack of exposure is the cause, and also that I tend to listen to what my children tell me I must listen to; they are usually good guides, but I am currently about five years behind at listening to all they have recommended.

I also decided to post this to give a bit of relief from the serious tone that is everywhere else on this blog. I can be silly; I can be too silly. Those who don’t appreciate such frivolity can easily choose not to read this. I hope you enjoy the list, and I hope you will find something that intrigues you and that will prove to be a real find. These are listed alphabetically because it is impossible to rank them in order of importance.

  1. Alice in Chains Unplugged
    My sons Gabriel and Isaac took a long time getting me to listen to Alice. The lyrics, the music, but most of all the way they use their voices, really appeals to me. Seattle’s finest and the only grunge I really like.
  2. The Beatles White Album
    An obvious choice if only because it includes the best song ever written, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
  3. Better Than Ezra Deluxe
    Another one due mainly to Gabriel’s influence. Some of these songs are the best meditations on the human tendency to violence I have ever heard, sometimes uncomfortable but extremely well done.
  4. Blue Rodeo Lost Together
    One advantage of living close to Canada is hearing these guys. I saw them in person, the best concert I have ever been to. There is no other group that combines genres this way.
  5. Mary Chapin Carpenter A Place in This World
    Carpenter is an excellent poet and has written some of the saddest songs ever written. I could have picked many of her albums for this place, but this was the first I heard of her and still my favorite. I first heard her on the soundtrack of the film Fly Away Home. She can express sadness so deep you wonder how anyone goes on living. But she does other things too.
  6. Bruce Cockburn The Charity of Night
    My single all time favorite singer and writer. You can’t really say he has a best album; there are ten tied for the number one spot. I didn’t like him at all when I first heard him and each new record he makes has a learning curve attached. That’s the sign of genius, I suspect.
  7. Counting Crows This Desert Life
    Adam Duritz is another one who sets very high poetic standards for contemporary music.
  8. The Cranberries Everybody Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We?
    My favorite Irish group. I think I first heard them on the soundtrack for You’ve Got Mail.
  9. Creedence Clearwater Revival Cosmo’s Factory
    When they were popular, I didn’t like them at all. Now that I am a man, I can see their genius.
  10. The Dave Mathews Band Under the Table and Dreaming
    Wow. And what happened to these guys? Mental illness of some kind? I feel they were struck down before their time.
  11. Dire Straits On Every Street
    All of their albums were great in their own way, but this one stands out for some reason.
  12. The Dixie Chicks Long Way Home
    My daughter Judith taught me to like them. I resist country music, but I am glad my resistance failed. Be sure to see the documentary about them, “Shut Up and Sing”.
  13. Donovan Sunshine Superman
    This was my first favorite album and I have never grown tired of it over nearly forty years. It expresses the flower children culture perfectly, and “Season of the Witch” is a classic by itself.
  14. Bob Dylan Time Out of Mind
    It was hard not to go with Highway 61 but I wanted to choose a more recent album. This is as good as any he ever did.
  15. The Gipsy Kings Tierra Gitana
    It’s all in Spanish so I don’t understand it at all, but it is so good I don’t care. The singing voices are not beautiful but they are perfect.
  16. Buddy Guy Blues Singer
    This is my ideal of what blues should sound like. I have listened to very little blues, but I really should listen to more if it is like this.
  17. Harrod & Funck Dreams of the Color Blind
    Their only album unfortunately. No one does anything quite like this. I had the chance to hear them perform and missed it. Drat.
  18. Iron and Wine The Shepherd’s Dog
    His older minimalist stuff convinced me he was great, but he has taken up complexity brilliantly.
  19. Bert Jansch Moonshine
    Scottish folk and rock and brilliant guitar playing.
  20. Carole King Tapestry
    Predictable I suppose. I still remember the first time I heard “So Far Away” and how it connected with me.
  21. Mark Knopfler Sailing to Philadelphia
    Another poet. This is Knopfler at his best. He can make a song about anything – surveying the Mason-Dixon line, a pioneer meeting his mail order bride, anything.
  22. Low Anthem Charlie Darwin
    My daughters Judith and Louisa were fans before anyone else in the world knew about these guys; they went to concerts where you could count the audience on your fingers. And they brought me along with them.
  23. Loreena McKennit The Book of Secrets
    I can’t remember where I first heard her, but now she has a permanent place in my consciousness. I suppose this is classified as “new age music”; if so, it is the best of its kind.
  24. The Newsboys Step Up to the Microphone
    They are a “Christian Rock Group” – a category I think is absurd and should be discarded. These guys are overtly religious and preachy and they do it all with genuine musical talent and creativity.
  25. OMC How Bizarre
    Another from Gabriel. This music doesn’t fit into any category I know (Maori Rap?); it just sticks with you.
  26. Our Lady Peace Clumsy
    Yet another from Gabriel and Isaac. I heard this album from the other room so many times I finally caught on to it.
  27. Tom Petty Wildflowers
    I enjoy everything Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers do. At his best he is a true artist. I didn’t listen to their music during the peak period of their career; found them later on an “oldies” show.
  28. The Proclaimers Sunshine on Leith
    Scottish twins who overwhelm with their power and expressiveness. I first heard them on the Benny and Joon soundtrack.
  29. REM New Adventures in HiFi
    The best album out of a long series of great ones. I could nearly have gone to college with these guys, but I’m a bit older and went in a different direction.
  30. Radiohead Amnesiac
    Again, they have done too much great music to easily choose a single album as representative. I read one description of them that said they reinvent music each time they do another song, and that seems right.
  31. Paul Simon Graceland
    Another obvious pick. I have been impressed by his lyrics and music since “Sounds of Silence” made us all introspective, and made it cool for guys to write poetry.
  32. Cat Stevens Tea for the Tillerman
    The guy next door to me in the dorm my senior year played this all the time. It is as amazing now as it was then.
  33. Sufjan Stevens Seven Swans
    It may be Gabriel that introduced me to Sufjan Stevens, and if so it was a great service to me. Stevens knows how to do spiritual themes without being heavy handed.
  34. Sting Brand New Day
    I didn’t hear a single song by Sting until the peak of his career was long over – seems typical of me; I am always getting things late. Anyway, his talent is phenomenal. There is a rap song in French, admittedly not his best effort, but how classy is that?
  35. Toad the Wet Sprocket Dulcinea
    These guys were once described as “The standard bearers of folk-rock mediocrity.” Don’t believe it.
  36. The Wallflowers Bringing Down the Horse
    Given more opportunity I think Jacob Dylan has great potential, but unlike his father I think he needs a band to jump start his creativity. Some people just don’t work well alone. I hope he doesn’t give up prematurely.
  37. Cassandra Wilson New Moon Daughter
    I don’t listen to much jazz and mostly I don’t connect with it when I do. I read about Cassandra Wilson in a music review in Time magazine, compelling enough that I sought her out. She dismantles the song entirely and puts it all back together again in a transformative way. I love her voice.
  38. George Winston Linus and Lucy
    He is the master of the solo piano and I think this is his best. These tracks were mainly composed by the great Vince Guaraldi for the Peanuts tv specials and are in a class by themselves.
  39. Stevie Wonder Conversation Peace
    One of his newer albums and by far the best of a great collection of work. When I was Little Carroll I didn’t care much for Little Stevie; I just needed to be more mature, I guess.
  40. Neil Young Sleeps with Angels
    An icon of the sixties, and the decades after. I love so much of Neil Young’s music, but this one rises to the top.

This is only coincidentally a “top 40”. I didn’t intend it this way. Here is my list of honorable mention artists whom I really really like but could not pin-point to any particular album:

  1. The Animals
    Again, I didn’t appreciate them in my youth and had to re-listen when I got older.
  2. Jackson Browne
  3. Cat Power
    She, like Cassandra Wilson, has the ability to completely deconstruct a song and put it back together again.
  4. Eric Clapton
  5. Fleetwood Mac
  6. The Lovin’ Spoonful
    The first time I heard “Daydream” I loved it and that has only happened with three or four songs in my life.
  7. Aimee Mann
  8. Sarah McLachlan
  9. No Doubt
    This is a strange group for me to like but their music is compelling in a way I don’t understand.
  10. The Rolling Stones
    I hesitantly include them. I think I don’t like them, but then I remember particular songs that are marvelous, and they have been around long enough to accumulate quite a large repertoire of marvelous songs.
  11. Smashing Pumpkins
    A second strange group for me to like but I really do. Billy Corgan’s voice is perhaps terrible but it seems right for the music.
  12. Gillian Welch

Well, enjoy these if you can, try them out if you will. Music enriches our lives in unexpected ways, and usually in ways that we can’t enunciate. Each one of these groups, each cd, many of the songs has been a catalyst for thinking better – thinking about the world or God or the Bible. I hope they have a similar effect on you.

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8 Comments on “The Soundtrack of My Life”

  1. russellboyle Says:

    Come on the rising wind, we’re going up around the bend..


    • I didn’t know CCR was popular down under, but I am glad some of the better parts of American culture drifted down that way. In my turn, I really enjoyed Gotye’s song, Somebody That I Used to Know from two years ago. It was played a lot up here and I assume down there too. And by a lot I mean in the typical American over-kill way, but I never got tired of it.

      • russellboyle Says:

        “Somebody That I Used to Know” is played often here and Gotye’s success with this song has been much celebrated. CCRs version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” introduced me to the Blues and subsequently opened up a new musical world for me as a boy.


  2. You left out Santana! BTW, thanks for introducing me to Bruce Cockburn many years ago. He does the Huron Carol better than any. Merry Christmas!


  3. Of course I wholly agree with russellboyle‘s CCR, but I feel it should also be noted of the list, “Beatniks are out to make it rich.”


    • The line that is going through my mind repeatedly is “I’m too old for the term but I’ll use it anyway/ I’ll be a child of the wind to the end of my days.” Season of the Wiitch is my second all time favorite song, though it does get impossible to really rank songs and make comparisons. I’m going to do another list eventually of one hit wonders. Stay tuned to this station for exciting new revelations.


  4. Thank you for the list – it gives me something to work on. So many, many years ago you introduced me to the Beadles and Simon and Garfunkel and when I visited your family I became a rabid fan of Bruce Cockburn. I got to go to one of his concerts here in Seattle and it was amazing. Thank you again for enriching my musical appreciation – Keep it coming!!


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