Back Into the Grooves: Albums That Changed Our Lives
In his piece on the history of Kansas City record stores, Michael Atchison talked to local proprietors about "the ritual" of vinyl records.
“Streaming is casual. Records demand ceremony.”
For every music lover with a turntable, there’s probably a story behind one of their favorite slabs of wax. Read about a few records our contributors hold dear, before the third and final Record Store Day of 2020 hits tomorrow.
P.S. Support your favorite local shops!
Michael Jackson – “Thriller”
The best part of an actual vinyl record is the fact that there are two sides. Albums may have overarching themes or storylines, but individual sides can have personas all their own. A side can take on its own life, separate from its larger work.
Just look at side 2 of Michael Jackson’s 1982 “Thriller” album. Indeed, it was that single that captivated — and scared the hell out of — me when I was a kid, but “Thriller” the song was merely an end quotation mark on a side that aptly kicked off with “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.”
The real magic came from side two. One would flip that vinyl over and line up the needle for the guitar stylings of the late Eddie Van Halen, cementing his place as a rock guitar god on a pop record, of all places. From there it was the deep funk of “Billie Jean,” which still fills dance floors four decades later. “Human Nature” was an airy ballad that was eventually made better by the ‘90s remix done by SWV, but was still passable.
The falsetto and chipmunk verses of “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” probably landed better to a kid who still worshipped Alvin and company, but you can’t deny Quincy Jones’s production. That the album ends on “The Lady in My Life,” which was inconsequential to a 5-year-old, doesn’t sully a side that has about as good a four-track run as any.
“Thriller” meant so much to me because it was really the first time I had something of my own. Up to that time the stereo in our living room belonged to mom and dad’s records — The Beatles, Rolling Stones, ELO and Rod Stewart were great, but I couldn’t lay claim to my own sounds until “Thriller” hit the platter.
The Replacements – “Pleased To Meet Me”
Growing up is a continuum. That hazy transition from adolescence to adulthood is marked by lurches forward and stumbles back, by cries of independence and calls for help. It’s a time when bravado covers for insecurity, when insight grows from heartbreak, when guitars roar while words fail. That period of my life was soundtracked by The Replacements, the patron saints of stunted development, whose 1987 album “Pleased To Meet Me” came out just as I turned 19, and whose lyrics simultaneously said nothing and everything: “The words I thought I brought I left behind, so never mind, all over but the shouting, just a waste of time.”
The album captured every contradictory emotion I felt. It rocked with abandon (“I.O.U.”), danced with grace (“Skyway”), worshipped heroes (“Alex Chilton”), and sneered at success (“I Don’t Know”). It was shockingly perceptive and unabashedly trashy. But the lingering note, lovingly reinforced in the album-closing “Can’t Hardly Wait,” was hope — the greatest of all adolescent feelings. A Rolling Stone review once declared The Replacements “too true to be good,” a wink towards a stripped-bare sound in a synth-pop age. In the end, though, they were too good to be wrong.
Julia Jacklin – “Crushing”
I hold Julia Jacklin’s 2019 album, “Crushing,” very near and dear. The album itself was unlike anything I had heard at the time, with extreme highs and lows instrumentally as well as lyrically. I’ve always admired her ability to do that, and this album is a prime example.
She came to town on tour for the album, and I was lucky enough to skip my senior prom to be there and work merch for the opener — local musician Chloe Jacobson. During Chloe’s set, I saw Julia stop in the middle of what she was doing and go over to watch Chloe play. It was really incredible to see that enthrallment happen. As the night progressed and Julia took the stage, I went down to catch a couple songs up close and personal. Two older people in the audience kept looking at me. Eventually, they made their way over and started talking to me, thinking I was a part of Julia’s tour and even potentially her sister. It was too late for me to correct them after I pieced together the general idea of what they were saying, so I just kind of rolled with it. Before they headed out of the venue, they asked, “Please tell Julia we love her and her music! She means so much to us!”
If I ever cross paths with Julia again, I swear to God I will tell her about those two and their appreciation for her. I had never been to a concert where the crowd expressed so much genuine love for the artist — someone even drew a portrait of her and handed it to her as she walked off stage. It was really moving to experience an album like “Crushing” live and in person, and to witness the mutual affection it held for others in the room.
Elliott Smith – “Either/Or”
As someone who has a deep and slightly distressing affinity for sad music (don’t worry, I’m fine), there’s perhaps nothing more heart-wrenching than Elliott Smith’s 1997 breakout album. Years after it held a prominent spot in my nylon CD wallet, I found an even more profound appreciation for it when I purchased it on vinyl.
Dropping the needle on “Either/Or” is generally reserved for nights of a solitary, monochromatic mood, knowing that the experience will likely transcend a simple 36-minute listening session. And on those dreary nights, every piece hits just perfectly, giving you a far more intimate glimpse into a brilliant, troubled songwriting mind.
Elliott Smith’s elegant pop arrangements could be disarmingly stark and dramatically lush, painted with bittersweet brushstrokes of tenderness and yearning. Through the vinyl record experience, you hear each heightened harmony, each layer of tension constructed through a different instrument, each imperfect warble. The album’s beautifully understated mood is catharsis, at its best.
Joy Division – “Closer”
Some life-changing albums should come with a warning sticker. "Closer" is my case in point.
Ian Curtis was fronting a band on the brink of fame. He was married with a kid. His epileptic seizures were worsening by the day. And he was romantically entangled with another woman. It was a toxic mix that left our protagonist dangling from a love triangle.
Before checking out, though, he recorded an album that can be heard as nothing less than a suicide note. It didn't take a detective to figure it out. Just look at the cover. Scan song titles such as "Atrocity Exhibition,” "Isolation,” "A Means to an End,” "Heart and Soul,” and "The Eternal.”
Snippets of lyric surface from the grim din to tell the tale. "This is the way, step inside”... "I'm ashamed of the person I am"... "This is the crisis I knew had to come"... "Some things I have to do, but I don't mean you harm"... "God in his wisdom took me by the hand"... "Gotta find my destiny, before it gets too late"... "Procession moves on, the shouting is over... Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone."
Definitely not something you want to recommend to an impressionable person.
After the tragedy, his bandmates professed befuddlement. We were so drunk at the time, they said. We were still learning to play, they said. We didn't pay much attention to what he was singing, they said.
I forgave them, because that's what my grandmother taught me to do in Sunday school, and they went on to form a band that created some of the most physically and emotionally exalting music of the next decade.
But I was still stuck listening to this damn album the summer after my sophomore year. I had moved out from my parents once and for all. My college savings were drained. I was subsisting on a diet of undelivered pizza and happy hour nachos. Things were getting worse in the Farm Belt, where foreclosure sales and funerals for farmers cluttered the social calendar. My romantic, educational and professional future was pretty much in flux.
And I was listening to this?
I made it through my blue patch. But I listened to this album in the pre-dawn hours not long ago, and the same old chills swept me. I wanted nothing more than to go back in time and reassure my younger self that everything was gonna work out fine — that a wonderful life was just over the horizon.
No one could reach Ian, though. All he could do was leave behind this album of unprecedented power — a black hole that absorbs all light, and emits none... eternally.
Poor kid. Such a damn shame.