Five Random Albums

An autobiographical tour of a record collection.

If you’ve ever seen or read “High Fidelity,” then you know that rock snobs are notorious for making lists. They can be about anything: “The Top Five Heartbreak Records”; “The Top Five Records to Listen to While You’re Doing Home Repair”; “The Top 10 Songs That Remind You of That Girl From Seventh Grade”; “The Top Three Bob Dylan Cover Songs,”; “The Records You’d Bring With You to a Desert Island if the Desert Island in Question Was Home to Just You and a Coconut Bra-Wearing Alyssa Milano.”

Okay — so maybe that last one is just me.

(And the record would be “Barry White’s Greatest Hits.”)

But no matter.

The point is, lists give us a focal point, a way to organize our thoughts, to help lend some order to the cosmos. When you make yourself compile a top five list of your favorite songs, or your favorite films, or your favorite books, what you’re really doing is compiling your own cultural history.

When you make yourself name your favorite record, you’re also asking yourself to remember all sorts of trivia and sensation associated with it: Where were you? What did the air smell like? Was it hot? Were you happy? Were you sad? Were you enjoying a moment of languor with a coconut-bra wearing Alyssa Milano?

Again, that last one may just be me.

As a test of this theory, I selected five records, at random, from the vast shelves of vinyl in my home office. Looking them over, I’m remembering all sorts of things about the person I was when I bought them, what they meant to me at the time, what they mean to me now and whether they stand the test of time. Try it yourself. See what you unearth.

1. “Boy” — U2 (1980)

'Boy'If I remember correctly, this one was purchased in the record department of the long-defunct G. Fox & Co. department store in Hartford, CT. “Fox’s,” as we all called it, was the jewel in Hartford’s retail crown, a multistory wonder where everyone went to buy a fancy shirt and to have lunch when you were in downtown Hartford. The sense of occasion surrounding a trip to Fox’s was palpable. And when the store finally went belly-up sometime in the early 1990s, there was an equally palpable sense of loss.

So perhaps it’s only natural that I brought a visiting friend from Boston to the store with me on that summer day in 1985 (or so) when I purchased this record. I vividly remember the buzz of driving into downtown Hartford with my mom, pointing out landmarks to my buddy. I still feel the same way whenever I have occasion to return.

This wasn’t the first record I ever bought — that honor goes to U2′s legendary 1984 concert EP “Under a Blood Red Sky.” But there is something magical and innocent about this debut that U2 progressively lost as they became ever larger and started buying into their 1980s myth as world-savers.

Maybe it was the sense of space. On tracks like “An Cat Dubh” and “A Day Without Me,” producer Steve Lillywhite managed to make the young U2 alternately sound as if they were playing on a wind-swept cliff or inside a cathedral. The sounds are massive and majestic. But at the same time, there is the kind of freshness and naiveté you only get when a group of young musicians are finding their way on vinyl for the first time.

Side note: My last name is printed, in block capitals, in the upper-right corner of the front cover, a sign that I brought this record to boarding school with me.

An Cat Dubh” from the album “Boy

2. “The Dream of the Blue Turtles” — Sting (1985)

Dream of the Blue TurtlesPurchased, probably, at the old Caldor department store, either in Torrington or Avon, CT. What is it about my relationship with music and long-forgotten retailing Meccas?

This was the “jazz” record from the former Police frontman. And though some of the production touches are dated, it’s testament to the former Gordon Matthew Sumner’s skills as a songwriter that this debut solo LP holds up as well as does 26 years on from its original release. High points here include the snap and roll of Omar Hakim’s snare on a re-imagined version of The Police tune “Shadows in the Rain,” and the soaring chorus of “Fortress Around Your Heart.” On the other hand, the less said about the cartoonish politics of “Russians,” its cringe-inducing chorus (“I hope the Russians love their children too”) and the appropriation of a theme from Prokofiev, the better.

Additional trivia: The double-bass-fueled “Moon Over Bourbon Street” was inspired by Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire.” And it made me run out to buy the book after I heard the song. Neither have held up particularly well for me over time.

Again, my name is scrawled in block caps on the sleeve, which means it came with me to boarding school. And this one I definitely remember listening to with frends.

3. “Live in a Room” — The Method Actors (1982)

'Live in a Room'No idea where I bought this one, though I want to say North Carolina or Athens, GA. I’m guessing this is the case because, in the late 1990s after I finished graduate school, I was living and working in Winston-Salem, NC, and I spent much of my spare time trolling used record stores, where I snapped up every release from the region’s insanely fertile New Wave scene of the early to mid-1980s.

The Method Actors were one of the bands from the same Athens, GA, scene that produced Pylon, Love Tractor and a bunch of chancers called R.E.M. Mostly forgotten, except by scenesters and critics, The Method Actors were a two-piece, fronted by a guy named Vic Varney, and they produced a kind of noisy and angular art-funk that seemed to crop up on so many records of the era.

Interesting side point: The back cover of this record has “6/6/85, WXPN” scribbled across the back in blue ballpoint. Inside, in the same blue ballpoint, is a notation that the record is to be played at 45 rpm. Guessing this is a DJ copy that somehow found its way into the used bins.

Excerpt from “Detective” from the album “Live in a Room

4. “King Tubby’s African Love Dub, 1974-79″ — King Tubby (Canadian compilation, release date uncertain)

'King Tubby's African Love Dub, 1974-79'A collection of tracks from one of the towering figures of roots reggae. King Tubby’s dub productions are famed for their technical innovation. This one was bought at, of all places, a combination guitar shop and record store at a ski resort town in the Rockies when my wife and I traveled there last year for a wedding.

Judging by its pristine condition, I haven’t played this one too much. I have tons and tons of King Tubby and roots dub and reggae scattered across multiple formats (a truly massive two-CD King Tubby collection put out by Trojan Records in the UK is the centerpiece of this collection). So while I can’t say too much about the specifics of this record (one of two reggae comps I picked up during that trip), I can say that my immersion in the sounds of Jamaica has been among the most rewarding of my life.

There is something about the records, something intangible, that makes them just fantastic. In part, it’s the fact that Jamaican musicians basically created a native music from the ground up in the early 1960s after the dominant American R&B was displaced in audiences’ affections. In part it’s the fact that reggae records are, for the most part, intensely political and personal statements. They’re reflections of life in the Kingston slums and they represent a viewpoint rarely heard in recorded music. And when you stop to consider that these roots reggae sides fired the most creative work of one my favorite bands, The Clash, perhaps it’s only natural that I’d be drawn to learn more about the source material for their LPs as well.

5. “Most of the Girls Like to Dance” — Don Dixon (1986)

'Most of the Girls Like to Dance'Again, a record bought in North Carolina during my sojourn there during the late 1990s. Together with Mitch Easter (another totemic figure in southeastern New Wave), Dixon co-produced R.E.M.’s first two (and arguably best) LPs. But he was an equally accomplished artist in his own right.

In the 1970s, Dixon played in a band called Arrogance, which is still spoken on in hushed tones by many of the NC hipsters I’m lucky enough to call friends. He also released a brace of tuneful solo records, notably this 1986 long-player, which gained him some small chart fame. The best-known track here is “Praying Mantis,” which is anchored by Dixon’s insistent Motown-ey bass part and his equally soulful vocals.

Masters of the particularly obscure might also recognize Dixon from the 1988 cult film “Heathers.” He fronted the fictional band that sang “Teenage Suicide, Don’t Do It,” during one particularly hilarious part of the flick.

I love this album for so many reasons. But chief among them is the fact that it brings me back to a time when I was living on my own in a place entirely foreign to me. This music anchored me and the people I met through it gave me a home.

Praying Mantis” from the album “Most of the Girls Like to Dance
Article © 2011 by John L. Micek