The Master Class: Humble Beginnings
Consistency, as concerns environment, was a luxury I missed in my youth. My family moved frequently, limiting my opportunity for friend making and the general setting down of roots. What I did have was a family run on love and music. Love, music, and an affinity for philosophical musings on both.
Despite our propensity for nomadic movement, my mother and father always tended to work a fair distance from where we had set down for the six month period. This relative distance, and their love for showing off their children to their peers, led to many hour long car trips, mostly with my father.
The first action that occurred after firing up the Jeep Wagoneer, even before seat belts (shame on you Dad), was cranking up the radio (classic rock only) or the 8-track player. My father would glance at me with a knowing smile, fettered with the understanding that rituals were to be held and traditions were to be made.
"Name that band."
That was the first request. Even before I had the slightest inkling as to what the rock genre represented, or the cultural weight that it carried, that was the first request. You see, my old man is a teacher of the highest grade. In the classroom, and out, he relies on experience to convey knowledge. I see this now, but I most definitely did not see it then.
So, here I am, four years old with a musical catalog consisting of bedtime lullabies and drug fueled, Sesame Street acid trips, attempting to answer this query from my father/mentor/leader of my young manhood...and coming up blank.
"The Damn Yankees buddy. Ted Nugent and Tommy Shaw play guitar for them. You don't know those guys yet, but you will."
Thus began my life long pilgrimage into the wonderful world of music.
From that point on, every piece of rock music that had power enough to grace our ears was followed by the same request. It didn't matter the location or the company being kept, my old man and I were matching musical wits any time we could.
Once I had a firm grasp on rock, and could name a vast majority of the bands being played, the request became two-tiered: "Name that band. Name that song." As I grew, so did my knowledge of music. By the time I was in middle school, all he had to do was glance at me and I would run through band name, song name, album name, lead singer name, lead guitarist name, and finally, the year in which the song was released.
As you may have noticed, the old man had a very specific criteria in which he chose the music he listened to. My youth was full of guitar driven rock and soaring vocals, simple and oh-so-sweet.
Around my middle school years I began to discover grunge and the proverbial tables slowly started to turn. No longer was classic rock the sole fare of our game. I would ask of him the same as he did me amidst my childhood years, and he would respond with childlike vigor, eager to learn how music had progressed since he last stopped to listen.
Sidenote: I should mention that both my mother and father were excellent musicians in their time. My father an acoustic guitar player. My mother a violinist. From preschool to seventh grade I was enrolled in classical piano lessons, all while observing my father playing his Gibson J-45 and writing songs at home.
At the same time I was discovering my own generation's musical stylings, I was also learning classical composition through my participation in middle-school band. I began by playing the trumpet (more specifically, the coronet; a smaller, warmer brass instrument that resembles the trumpet) and worked my way through the brass and woodwind instruments with great curiosity. It was during this time that I developed a love for massive sounds and complex compositions. This love spawned specifically from playing in the brass section during a school reproduction of John Williams "Jurassic Park Theme." After seeing my enthusiasm, my band instructor lent me a copy of Spirit of Radio by Rush, and my love affair with Progressive Rock was born. A love affair that burns brightly to this day, I might add.
At this point, music was as much a part of my life as eating and sleeping. I needed to have something playing at all times in order for the experience to make any sense to me. Silence wasn't scary, it just felt empty and wrong. This longing, this desire, led me to theoretical study, playing in multiple bands during college, and a serious over-analysis of every piece of music I now hear.
The Matter At Hand
Don't worry, I hear your cries of, "Why the hell do I care?" I'm getting to that. My love for prog and complex composition has kept me isolated (read: safe) from the pop divas that have invaded the airways over the years. It is, or at least it was, difficult for me to find kindred musical spirits in the rather sheltered midwest. Who knew that a love of organized chaos and fifteen minute long songs was rare?
Well, as of about a year ago, I met three gentlemen that didn't exactly share my obsession with prog, but were equally as passionate with the impact music can have on the human psyche. After speaking with them at length, the topic of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time came up. It seemed these men of genius held the same disdain for the lost soul that is Rolling Stone that I did. Thus began the next evolution of my musical life, our own 25 Greatest Albums of All Time (Why not 500? Because that is an outrageously stupid number of albums, the tail end of which would be a product of boredom, not intrigue).
Sidenote: I don't hate you Rolling Stone, I just hate what you have become. There was once a time when you spoke to, and for, musicians and the culture of creativity they represent. Now, all I see is a puppet of the music industry bent more on production cost than musical integrity. As a great employee of yours once wrote, "So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?"
I ask you now Rolling Stone, how's the beach?
The Master Class
Our journey began around five months ago. Each day we would venture in a metaphorical circle, putting up albums of our choice in the hopes they would one day grace our 25 greatest albums list. In the beginning, the undertaking seemed a bit overwhelming, as our musical differences were brought immediately to light. It was at this juncture we could have called the game on account of rain, but we persevered and allowed our distinct musical tastes to influence expansion of our musical minds.
In that five month period we digested 305 albums, compiling a list that brought us equal amounts of joy the larger and more comprehensive it became. We decided that the 305 mark gave us a large enough sampling to begin pinning down our top 25. Since we have neither the staff nor the cash to poll all the major players in the music industry, we trimmed the fat, landed on 256, and decided to go about this March Madness style! That's right, 4 regions of 64 albums, all battling for the glory of top 25ness!
Now, before anyone judges the logic of such a format, know that all first round losers will be dropped into the Redemption Pool, in which they will have the opportunity to battle back into the limelight. The top fifteen of the Redemption Pool will be combined with the top 25 of the main pool. Once these are compiled, a voting system will be used to determine the top 25 of all time.
We use a small criteria in an attempt to avoid emotional attachment to any one album (Yes, this is an absolute joke of logic, but it makes us feel better). They are as follows:
- Album Cohesiveness: Deals with the natural flow of the album. We attempt to focus on whether or not the artist was a money-hungry, singles generator, or if there was an effort made to create a fluid piece of art.
- Instrumentation/Composition: A fundamental, but rather complex view of the album structure. More specifically, does the sonic structure of the album make sense? Anyone can make noise, very few can make that noise make sense for an entire album.
- Songwriting: Lyrical content is just as powerful as music, in that it adds texture to the sonic landscape being laid before you. Does this texture add to the music? Or, is it crafted in such a way that it muddies the water?
- Vocal Melodies: This category deals specifically with the voice as instrument. Does the vocal performance add to the sonic quality? Is it too much/over-powering? Is it not enough?
- Innovation: This is a tricky category, as it doesn't necessarily deal directly with originality, but it certainly implies it. Here we want to focus on two ideals: Does the album represent a progressive step for the artist in their collection of work? Does the album progress music as a whole?
Subjectivity vs Objectivity
Obviously we want to remain completely objective with this project, as we have all come to respect its power, but it is so damn hard. We all agreed to do this because we are passionate about music, our own tastes in it doubly so. Music has a way of getting under our skin and speaking directly to who we are.
It is in this light that we have all come to understand that complete objectivity is nigh impossible with music, but we will certainly try. Is our list going to be perfect? No. Will it make sense to everyone? No. Do we believe in it? Most definitely.
It is our hope that it may ignite the same passion in others who may be searching for the magic that music can bring. I will continue to write about our experience as we proceed, just look for the Master Class picture.