20 Albums That Influenced Me: Jason Warburg

by Jason Warburg

20_150Let’s be clear from the start what this list is and isn’t. It isn’t a list of my favorite albums, or the best albums by my favorite bands, or anything at all like that; kindly banish such thoughts from your mind. What this is, is a list of albums that reached me at a critical point along my journey and changed the way I heard music. Also, while the list itself is chronological, it’s not in the way you might expect; albums are listed in the order in which they had an impact on me, not the order in which they were released. Call it a musical autobiography if you will.


1. The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

This is where it all began: the album that forms the foundation of my very first musical memory. I’m in my oldest brother Andy’s room in late 1966 or early 1967; he’s 16 and I’m four. Our brothers Pete and Gerry are there too and everyone is laughing and teasing each other. This album goes on the turntable and, at least in my memory, repeats and repeats and repeats. I’m pretty sure I knew all the words to “A Hard Day’s Night” before the national anthem.


2. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1973)

This was my personal point of entry into an entire universe of music: Motown, soul, blues, jazz. Like any number of Beatles albums, Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece is music I heard over and over as a child, alongside soul-jazz classics like Stanley Turrentine’s Salt Song and Les McCann & Eddie Harris’ Swiss Movement, and feel like I absorbed through the pores of my skin. 


3. Yes – Yessongs (1973)

I had no idea what “progressive rock” was when my friend Ross—the only guy I knew in seventh grade who had more records than I did—handed me the foldout triple-LP gatefold album cover of Yessongs. He introduced me to what would become one of my favorite bands of all time with this album’s final side, the stunning encores of "Yours Is No Disgrace" and "Starship Trooper." It was the beginning of a journey I’m still on today through one of the most polarizing musical genres there is.


4. Queen – A Night at the Opera (1975)

Queen was the first band I ever saw live, and in some ways it spoiled me forever. There will never be another performer like Freddie Mercury or another song like “Bohemian Rhapsody”; each is singular and exceptional. Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor set a standard for showmanship, creativity, and musical brotherhood—the band delivered 13 albums over 18 years with the identical, founding lineup—that has spawned a thousand offspring but no real peers.


5. Fleetwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac (1975)

Rumours was the big one, of course, but this is the Mac album that first cast a spell on me. The instantly electric interplay between Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie’s voices is pure magic of the quality only a Welsh Witch could conjure up. “Monday Morning,” “Blue Letter,” “Rhiannon,” “Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me,” “Landslide”—this is the sound of pop-rock perfection.


6. Bob Seger – Night Moves (1975)

I remember hearing the single “Night Moves” on the radio and feeling like it was one of the most amazing songs I had ever heard. I was right—and it was only the tip of the iceberg for one of the great American songwriters of his generation. This album, along with Ian Hunter's 1975 self-titled debut, taught me something essential about the power of emotional honesty and authenticity in rock and roll songwriting.


7. The Who – Who’s Next (1971)

The first “classic” (i.e. not current) album I ever chose to review back in 1996, to this day Who’s Next remains one of my favorite albums of all time. There is a purity of intent and sheer momentum to this particular set of songs that is at least as captivating and charismatic as any individual Roger Daltrey wail or Pete Townshend windmill.


8. Montrose – Montrose (1973)

The soundtrack to my last three years of high school. I could rave about this album—an eight-song slab of blazing hard rock that set the standard for American heavy metal—for days, but beyond immortal tunes like “Rock The Nation,” “Space Station #5,” and “Rock Candy,” this album is inextricably entwined with a set of experiences, friendships and adventures that propelled me through adolescence toward the unseen reaches of adulthood.


9. Tom Petty – You’re Gonna Get It (1978)

Another funny thing about vinyl: sometimes I would fall so hard for one side of an LP that I’d rarely flip it over and listen to the other side. Such was the case with side two of the first Petty LP I ever picked up; sure, in retrospect, side one is solid, but side two’s “I Need To Know”-“Listen To Her Heart”-“No Second Thoughts”-“Restless”-“Baby’s A Rock N’ Roller” sequence is the one that permanently burned itself into memory over the course of night after restless night.


10. Van Halen – Van Halen (1978)

I only ever saw Van Halen live once, on their first national tour, opening for Black Sabbath on the strength of this mind-blowing debut, which enjoyed roughly a thousand spins during my last two years of high school. I don’t even remember if we stayed for Sabbath’s set—probably not; regardless of the billing, we’d already seen the headliner. (Trivia note: Van Halen recruited Ted Templeman as producer for their debut because he had produced Montrose, the album they wanted to emulate.)


11. Ronnie Montrose – Open Fire (1978)

By 1978 I was all about party-hearty hard rock. Then guitarist Ronnie Montrose, mastermind of the pinnacle of that genre, re-emerged with an all-instrumental solo debut that featured an orchestral overture, heavy rock with synthesizers, cinematic blues, gentle acoustic ballads, and gritty jazz-rock fusion. Montrose’s declaration of musical independence remains one of the milestones of both his career and mine, the moment when I first fully appreciated that a single artist could be many things at once, and that art is ultimately more about craft than product.


12. AC/DC – Highway to Hell (1979)

This, the best album by the best lineup of one of the most memorable acts in hard rock history, had a starring role in my senior year of high school that carried over into college. The memory is suspiciously hazy, but it seems to me that, once my freshman-year roommate Eric and I had finished hanging my speakers from the ceiling of our dorm room in late September 1980, this was the first album we cranked up to announce our arrival to the rest of the floor. And truly, it was a hell of a year.


13. The Pretenders – The Pretenders (1980)

Late in the summer before I went off to college, I got together with a buddy named Bruce, who’d graduated from our high school a year ahead of me and was home for a few weeks. I remember distinctly sitting in his car outside his house as he played this album for me and we were both rocked back in our seats by the force of nature that was (and still is) Chrissie Hynde. If there was a debut album that had a bigger immediate impact in the ’80s, I’m hard-pressed to think of it, and certainly no one has ever done more to change my own perception of women as rock and roll artists.


14. James Taylor – Greatest Hits (1976)

For this one you’re just going to have to read the whole review. Suffice it to say that, while it broadened my horizons at a time when my musical vision had narrowed, for me the lasting significance of James Taylor’s Greatest Hits will always be that it’s the album to which I fell in love for the last time.


15. Greg Kihn Band – Rockihnroll (1981)

It seems like most passionate music fans have a band like this—the underdog story of a hard-working local group they latched onto early, before the crowds. My freshman-in-college roommate Eric turned our group of friends on to his East Bay homeboy Kihn, a born-15-years-late Buddy Holly/early Beatles acolyte still fighting his way out of the bar-band trenches at the tail end of the ’70s. It’s been a long time since this—his initial breakthrough—was one of my favorite albums, but I still know every note, and remember well the string of Northern California shows we all caught together as the GKB was breaking nationally between 1981 and ’84.


16. U2 – Achtung Baby (1991)

In which one of my favorite acts from my least favorite musical decade (the ’80s) reinvented itself for a new era. They would take this direction too far in subsequent albums Zooropa and Pop, and The Joshua Tree remains my favorite in their catalog, but Achtung Baby offered proof that it’s possible to transform yourself without losing your essence. After a decade that had dimmed my passion for music, Achtung Baby was one of the albums that helped rekindle the fire.


17. Bruce Springsteen – Lucky Town (1992)

Yes: Lucky Town, perhaps the strangest point of entry of any serious Springsteen fan I know. I’d been hearing snippets for years, of course, but had never made more than a nodding acquaintance with the Boss’ catalog. Then my friend Dave adopted it as his personal mission to “convert” me to Springsteen fandom a few months before Human Touch and Lucky Town came out in 1992. The former didn’t feel all that special to me, but Lucky Town—Springsteen’s intimate, passionate take on marriage and fatherhood, arriving just a year after the birth of my third child—hit me like a corked Louisville Slugger. I’ve been among the converted ever since.


18. Mary Chapin Carpenter – Come On Come On (1992)

My friend Dave also convinced me to give Mary Chapin Carpenter—a country singer, of all things—a try. Of course, MCC has always been a duck amongst geese in the country world, an introspective folkie poet at heart, but her wise, witty songs and honey-rich voice opened my ears and mind to an entire genre of music that I’d stereotyped and ignored for too long. I’m still not a big country fan, but from this album onward I recognized that every genre contains both acts who aim for the lowest common denominator, and artists who train their sights much, much higher.


19. Fountains Of Wayne – Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)

The album that both blessed and cursed this New Jersey quartet with a fluke hit single (the temporarily-ubiquitous “Stacy’s Mom”) is so much more than that one clever Cars homage. Welcome is “filled with intelligent, nuanced songs that carry real emotional heft… a slice of alienated twenty-something life.” Taking the concept of making art from pain to another level, songwriters Chris Collingswood and Adam Schlesinger manage to find the humor inside of sadness and the melancholy undercurrents of joy, bringing the hills and valleys, office parks and dive bars of the New Jersey / New York City megalopolis to life in a series of brilliantly resonant guitar-pop gems. Of all the albums I connected with during the early aughts, this may be the one that made the most convincing case for me to keep on writing about music.


20. Big Big Train – The Underfall Yard (2009)

By the dawn of the 21st century I had more or less given up on progressive rock; my favorite albums from the genre all dated from the '70s, and nothing since had the combination of warmth, flair, complexity, superb musicianship, emotional resonance, vocal quality and unique narrative perspective that early Yes had encouraged me to demand. This tremendous album carried every one of those key characteristics forward into a modern setting and single-handedly re-energized my interest in the genre.

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