Lists, Maps, Narratives: The Top 11 All-Time Influential Albums of My Entire Life

Every so often on Facebook, a tagging Top 10 cycle begins. From listing the 12th word on the 12th sentence on the 12th page of a book that you are currently reading, to a listing of top 10 albums, books, or artists, these tagging cycles are fascinating to me (and I always get new things to read or listen to). I don’t know how many times that I’ve been tagged in a post and then created my Top 10 albums or books. Most recently, I was tagged in a Top 11 All-Time Influential Albums of My Entire Life. I’m including the list below:

At the tagging behest of Julian Cook, here are the 11 most influential albums of my entire life. In no particular order:

They Might Be Giants: Flood

XTC: Oranges and Lemons

Peter, Paul, and Mary: The Best of Peter, Paul, and Mary

Cyndi Lauper: She’s So Unusual

Propagandhi: How to Clean Everything

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground

Sarah Vaughan: Live at Mister Kelly’s

Nick Drake: Way to Blue

Camper Van Beethoven: Key Lime Pie

Boris: Noise

The Cure: Disintegration

Bonus extra: Avail: Dixie

I took the prompt literally, and although I didn’t write this list in any particular order, I’m going to elaborate on it in chronological order. Because there is most definitely a chronological order.

Peter, Paul, and Mary were my childhood obsession, and my first favorite. I carried their Best Of tape everywhere I went. I listened to it everywhere I could. I drove my parents crazy by playing that tape over and over and over again. It was my introduction to music, to melody, and to storytelling through song. I can still sing most songs on that album. Dragons, racehorses, lemon trees, and jet planes continue to have vivid connotations for me. While Tchaikovsky and Joan Baez were also childhood favorites, Peter, Paul, and Mary were the first.

Then I discovered Cyndi Lauper. Holy shit. Cyndi Lauper and Boy George were my heroes in elementary school. I cannot stress enough how much I adored these people who did what they wanted because it was artistic. Because it was beautiful. They embraced being different, they flaunted their own sense of style. I loved it. I was already a geekling, what with reading The Hobbit in fifth grade. And Cyndi Lauper made it clear that you should embrace who you are, that girls were really cool, and that fun was far better than True Womanhood. And I believed her.

Eighth grade brought XTC and They Might Be Giants. Prior to this, sixth and seventh grades had also brought New Kids on the Block, who I adored throughout the first part of middle school. I wouldn’t call this influential, however,  as much as tweenal. I’m not sure how girls now deal with growing up, but fetishsizing a boy band (or girl band) is not a bad way to deal with the sudden onset of puberty. After the initial slump into becoming a teenager, my ears reasserted themselves, but with the profound new knowledge that sex was very much linked to music. I listened to the radio avidly, but found myself drawn to bands that seemed to get less, if any, rotation. People made me tapes. Along with XTC and TMBG, I was introduced to Depeche Mode and Morrissey and REM. I wish I could list all of them as most influential. But XTC showed me a new way of looking at the world and finding meaning in it, and TMBG became my favorite band for similar reasons–and have stayed my favorite band for the last 24 years (for more on TMBG, read the intro to Geek Rock and my chapter “They Might Be Lacanian: They Might Be Giants, Jacques Lacan, and the Rhetoric of Geek Rock”).

High school. 9th/10th grade. The Cure and Camper Van Beethoven. More tapes from more people. Again, storytelling through song redefined, rebellion embraced, sonic impact re-assessed. 11th/12th grade: The Velvet Underground and Propagandhi (and Avail fits here as well). The discovery of punk was the culmination of much musical searching, the expression of my anger at society, my thwarted idealism, my discontent. It was a revelation, hence the juxtaposition with VU, who define revelation. There were weeks when all I would listen to was Propagandhi and VU. And other weeks when all I would listen to was CVB and The Cure. I went to local shows (here’s my nod to Avail, but also Inquisition (now Strike Anywhere), Uphilll Down, Four Walls Falling, Action Patrol, and Fun Size, to name a few) at least every weekend. Music was life.

And music was survival. My high school years were particularly messy because my home life was particularly messy. Not to get too into that here, but music, represented by these four bands (and my local scene), gave me hope, anger, optimism, and faith. And I really needed it.

In college, I discovered Nick Drake. Way to Blue was sitting unobtrusively in a CD rack at a record store called Plan 9, and I bought it. This album was the place where all that hope and anger and optimism and faith was leading. This was a different world, a Narnia of music. I jumped into the wardrobe.

About a year or so after I graduated from college, I discovered jazz, which was yet another door that I didn’t just walk through, I swam through (because, as ee cummings taught me, “a poet is a penguin, his wings are to swim with”). I summarized my discovery of jazz with Sarah Vaughan’s Live at Mister Kelly’s because it reminds me of scotch, summer nights, and listening to music with my entire consciousness.

And most recently Boris, whose music is an out of body experience. After seeing Boris live on their tour for Noise, I felt my perception of sound shift ever so slightly, my perception of possible, my perception of perception. The sonic shift is, for me, also a visceral shift, a paradigm shift, into new modes of being and sensing. All of these albums, in some way, shifted me, my world, my selfhood.

The element that all of these albums have in common is that they are all lyres. Robertson Davies wrote that “the lyre of Orpheus opened the door to the underworld of feeling.” For me, music is a door. Music is growth. Music takes me places beyond myself and teaches me who I am.

And that is why I love these top 10, top 11, top 15 lists on Facebook, because who am I is always changing, and each list I make is a different retrospective map of the path I took to become. Today, I look back from where I am, and see these 12 places I have been that have made me. Tomorrow, or next week, or next month, I’ll remember different moments, memories, albums, and those will be the ones that I list, that I use to map my selfness. It’s the act of mapping that is important, the tallying and creating, the shifting of lines and charts, of writing each list out. With each list, each map, we create a narrative of becoming, of being, of defining. We create a moment of who we are in this moment.

And then we move on to the next.

Not That Scruffy Looking: Nerf Herder

At Dragon*Con, I saw Nerf Herder play. Twice, in fact: a half hour acoustic set in the afternoon, and then an hour long set later than night. And I learned that I have been terribly remiss in exploring their oeuvre.

You see, I’d heard Nerf Herder before I knew they played the Buffy theme song (if you were not aware, yes, that’s Nerf Herder. And now that you know, go back and watch Season 7 again, because in the episode “Empty Places,” that’s Nerf Herder playing “Rock City News” at the Bronze. It’s funny, because Dawn says, “I think this band might actually be one of the signs [of the apocalypse].” Nerf Herder is, of course, literally one of the signs of the apocalypse in the Buffyverse, as their music heralds each episode. Fittingly, they are the last band we see play at the Bronze.). I had an ex who got into Nerf Herder with the release of How to Meet Girls in 2000, and he played that album, along with their eponymous 1996 release, quite a bit. I liked them. But shortly thereafter, the ex became ex, and that was that.

But sometimes bands follow you around until you pay attention (that would be a great music video.). I say “follow” because when I first saw Buffy (I need to point out here that I was late to Buffy, and started with Season 1 sometime while Season 4 was airing), I thought “Oh cool! Nerf Herder!” and my impression of the show immediately rose (which was good, because Season 1). I listened to Nerf Herder quite a bit, just the one song, over and over and over as I fell into Whedon fandom watching Buffy. And then, in Season 7, I added a snippet from another song to my Nerf Herder a la Buffy repertoire. Time passed. I still liked them. I re-watched Buffy. I wrote in Buffy Studies. I became a member of the WSA (that’s Whedon Studies Association. It’s awesome. They publish an online journal called Slayage and have a conference every two years.). I published a chapter in a book called Reading Joss Whedon. And I still didn’t explore Nerf Herder.

So when I discovered that Nerf Herder was playing at Dragon*Con, I went. And now, I keep asking myself, for the love of God, why didn’t I explore Nerf Herder? These guys are BRILLIANT. Not even remotely half-witted, nor scruffy looking, Nerf Herder is the most under-rated geek rock band that has ever geeked or rocked. American Cheese, their 2002 release, is playing rather obsessively on my Spotify (sorry guys, I’ll buy everything, too, I promise! I needed immediate gratification). Genius happens on this album. Several times. Nerf Herder (1996) and How to Meet Girls (2000) are the solid pop punk albums that I remember, and as soon as I can stop playing these I’ll move on to Nerf Herder IV (2008), My E.P. (2001) and High Voltage Christmas Rock (2002) (which I’ll clearly be saving until December). Plus, I’m looking forward to the new album they’re working on, that you can pre-order right here (yeah, I did that already).

So, I’m left with two questions from this long-deferred exploration: Why now? And what is it about Nerf Herder that makes them so great? I’ll start with the second one. Nerf Herder is a pop punk geek rock band. And they do pop punk well. Very, very well. Solid, tight, short songs. Guitar that drives and bass that bounces and drums that carry and vocals that pull it all together. The best of pop punk is a bag of Skittles: bright, infectious morsels. You can’t ignore a bag of Skittles. You can’t resist a bag of Skittles. And you can’t resist Nerf Herder. Even more alluring is their overt geekery, playing in Star Trek t-shirts and singing about Spock. Nerf Herder’s geek pop punk is like Skittles for breakfast: a little subversive, and exactly what you want in the depths of your heart.

Which brings me to the first question, secondly: Why now? I have a theory. (And no, I don’t think it’s bunnies). Music finds us when we need it to. Right now, Nerf Herder is my perfect sonic expression. All I want is Nerf Herder, Boris, and Melt Banana on repeat. I want sweetness and depth and melodic chaos. I can regret not exploring Nerf Herder sooner while at the same time being grateful to explore them now. I always liked them. I always liked Skittles. But I guess that now, the difference is that I want to eat Skittles for breakfast.

And possibly lunch and dinner as well.