10 Songs That Changed My Life

In the spirit of KCRW’s ongoing Guest DJ Project and also in the spirit of the fact they probably won’t be calling me to ask any time soon, here is a list of ten songs that helped to shape me as a musician.

To make this easier I restricted myself to songs I discovered before college. I also decided not to include any classical choices, because those could easily make up a list of their own.

1. Andrew Lloyed Webber – The Phantom of the Opera
A bit of an embarrassing first choice, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a major influence on six-year-old me. My mom had this on the original vinyl release and I listened to it more than anything else when I was younger. Michael Crawford, regardless of your opinions on his technique, has a hell of an instrument. For me, this song had it all: electronic drums, strings, vocal harmony, minor tonality, and of course a heavy freakin organ. I used to put this on and dance like a villian when no one was watching.

2. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On?
As a kid in Houston, I heard a lot of RnB on the bus to school, a fact for which I’m still grateful to this day. Dad had the eponymous album on vinyl. I played it constantly. I think I’ve always been a sucker for strings, and no one I’d ever heard before could sing like that. I didn’t come across Al Green until much later. I blame that Marvin Gaye record for a certain stretch in fifth grade where all I listened to was Boyz II Men.

3. Michael Jackson – Smooth Criminal
My uncle Lahab gave us a VHS that had some claymation Mark Twain adventure and Moonwalker on it. Of course, I became obsessed with Moonwalker and I remember one week I watched the Smooth Criminal scene every night trying to learn the dance. I got pretty far into it, too, until the bit where the music stops and the cat walks across the piano. I always hated that part, it bored me to death. It was even worse than the dinosaurs in Fantasia.

4. B.B. King – The Thrill is Gone
My family lived in Saudi Arabia for a while, where the best you could hope for CD-wise was the occasional cool soundtrack. Every summer we’d go back to the States, and all I ever asked for from my parents was more CDs. Once for some reason I bought a B.B. King collection and played the crap out of it. This particular song blew me away. I love the simple arrangement, the way the guitar transitions seamlessly from punchy to wailing to weeping, and the strings filling it all up. Wonderful.

5. Live – White, Discussion
Throwing Copper was the first album I ever bought. I’d heard a remix on the Virtuosity soundtrack and then my friend Mike played the original at a pool party. I bought the CD off him then and there. Everybody has a favorite off of this album, and this is mine. In truth I love every song on Throwing Copper, it’s one of those rare perfect albums.

6. UNKLE feat. Thom Yorke – Rabbit in Your Headlights
I feel clever, because this combines DJ Shadow with Radiohead, thus saving me a spot on my list. I found UNKLE’s debut Psyence Fiction at a listening station while visiting my aunt in California. Mom bought it for me when she saw how excited I was. I listened to it so many times I think it eventually broke in half. This is one of the first really good proggy singer/hip hop dj mash-ups that I’m aware of and definitely the first I’d ever heard. Hell of a music video, too.

7. The Prodigy – Smack My Bitch Up

I first heard this in a club in Bahrain, just before my family moved back to the States. It was the summer between tenth and eleventh grade, and musically it was a really important time for me. I hadn’t wanted to move again and I think my parents pitied me, so they let me buy ten CDs at once on Amazon. I still remember it. It was like Christmas in July. Three of those CDs were Fat of the Land, Crystal Method’s Vegas and Propellerheads Decksanddrumsandrockandroll. I was astounded at the sound coming out of the stereo. That was when I started making my own tracks on our family computer, and I’ve been an electronic musician ever since. I’ve never looked back.

8. Squarepusher – Iambic 5 Poetry
Squarepusher is probably my biggest influence, and I owe his discovery to my small but indispensable group of friends from Franklin, Tennessee. I’m a bona fide Squarepusher fan, so much so that it was hard for me to pick just one song. His sound changes radically from one album to the next, so just check him out. He’s amazing. This particular track off Budakhan Mindphone is really laid back. It’s so different from anything else he’s done, which is probably why it sticks out for me. Because of this song, plus maybe Port Rhombus, I use vibes/xylophone in my music all the time.

9. Benny Goodman – Sing! Sing! Sing!
I played clarinet in the school band for years. My dad bought the Ken Burns jazz documentary, which was full of revelation from start to finish. I’d never heard anybody play the clarinet like that, and the rest of the band sounded incredible, especially Gene Krupa on drums. I came across an old static-y recording of their 1938 performance at Carnegie Hall and it was love. I played it louder than most people play metal.

10. Cornelius – 2010
I hardly ever hung out with the guy who introduced me to Cornelius, so it’s kind of funny that he pretty much changed my life. This quirky, fast-paced track introduced me to Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor, which became something of an obsession for me after high school graduation and well into my freshman year of college. I was originally a biochem major, but for months I sat in the campus chapel every night learning the fugue by ear. When I finally played it for the girl I was dating at the time, she asked my why the hell I didn’t just switch to music already. Two years later when I applied for a transfer to Florida State, I nearly bombed the piano section of the audition until I played this fugue. In large part because of that piece, the guy passed me and I went on to be accepted to the FSU music department.

Plus it actually is 2010 now, so that makes it relevant. Got your own list? Feel free to drop it in the comments below.

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  • I guess Dru Down’s “Pimp of the Year” fell just outside your top ten.
    Anyway, very interesting list. A good mix of “Yeah that is great” and “WTF’s that?”.
    Listening to Squarepusher for the first time right now. I can definitely hear their influence. Liking it a lot.

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