20 Albums That Influenced Me: Benjamin Ray

by Benjamin Ray

20_150To celebrate the Daily Vault’s 20th anniversary, some of our staffers have put together a list of the top 20 albums that have influenced them, the ones that spurred either temporary love affairs or lifelong relationships, the ones that taught them that music is more than background noise and Billboard charts.

My list is not my 20 favorite albums, or the 20 best albums of all time, or even the best album by the band listed. Indeed, there are multiple albums by some artists that influenced me, and there are many other artists of influence who have catalogs, but not particular albums, that were important to my musical development (such as Madonna, Miles Davis, the Moody Blues, Joe Bonamassa, and Alice In Chains). Rather, this list of 20 albums follows my life roughly chronologically. Enjoy!


1. The Beatles -- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Our household had the Beatles on constantly, from mix cassettes to vinyl albums to the old 1987 CDs that were never remastered until 2009, and so most of their songs are imprinted into my brain and heart without even needing to hear them again. My father preferred the early works of the band, but it wasn’t until I obtained a vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper’s from the library and put it on that I discovered, at age 11, what was so special about these guys. I still remember standing in the basement of our Michigan home, listening to “A Day In The Life,” transfixed. This is where it all began.

2. Genesis – Selling England By The Pound (1973)

I could also add in A Trick Of The Tail here, as those two albums warranted the most repeated plays at Chez Ray back when Bill Clinton was president, but Pound is the one that resonated the most and still does. The band had such an interesting sound, arty but accessible, quirky yet emotional, intellectual and unafraid to be itself instead of chasing the dollar (at the time). Peter Gabriel’s singing on “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight,” the emotional guitar solo of “Firth Of Fifth,” the instrumental back half of “The Cinema Show,” and the extremely British pop tune “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” remain career highlights for the band and personal highlights for me.


3. King Crimson – Discipline (1981)

I discovered King Crimson at an early age through one of their dubious compilation cassettes and decided to track down Discipline shortly thereafter. The knotty virtuosity, dual guitars, and Adrian Belew’s lyrics were arresting and fun, more so than the doom-laden or boring pretentious early albums like Lizard. My enthusiasm for the first side of the album has waned a bit, but the entire second side, especially “The Sheltering Sky” and “Discipline,” opened a world of musical possibilities. I have since come around the virtues of nearly every Crimson album, but I never would have if it wasn’t for this one, and it remains their best work.


4. David Bowie – Changesbowie (1990)

My parents split when I was 12 and my mom got custody of the Bowie cassette (as well as Tales From Topographic Oceans on vinyl, which tells you plenty about my parent’s marriage). Endless car trips between Lansing and Okemos were spent listening to this, so naturally when I got my own little tape/CD player for Christmas I snagged this and held on tight. I suspect many people discovered Bowie through this collection, both the original and the longer one (with the ‘80s hits added on), and it just stuck. It also was a point of entry into the man’s vast catalog, and the more I started to explore, the more I liked.


5. Jimi Hendrix – Axis: Bold as Love (1967)

Although I heard Are You Experienced? plenty of times, Axis was the first CD I ever bought with my own money (at Circuit City! Remember them?). I realize that’s an odd choice for a teenager in 1996, but I hadn’t listened to much current music at the time and classics are classics for a reason. I loved getting lost in Jimi’s guitar playing and the little worlds his songs created, no matter how brief, and as this had not been played to death on classic rock radio, it was like discovering a new band.


6. Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975)

The soundtrack of driving up north, at least for me, and one of the few flawless records that has ever been made. I almost put Meddle here instead but for the absolute brilliance of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which encapsulates everything that matters about the Floyd.


7. Led Zeppelin – Untitled (1971)

Although Houses Of The Holy is a better album and Physical Graffiti is the one I end up listening to more often than not, hearing this album on repeat was life-changing. I never thought too much of “Stairway” at the time because “Rock And Roll,” “When The Levee Breaks” – actually, all of Side 2 – encapsulated the majesty and diversity of this band. I play guitar about as well as the Pentagon floats, but for a time I wanted to be Jimmy Page…and still do, truth be told.


8. The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

I was raised listening to Tommy and Who’s Next and love both, but this was the disc that converted me to the Who on my own terms. Jimmy’s struggles to fit in remain a universal teenage theme, of course, but the full cinematic scope, drama and emotion in the band’s playing spread out over two albums was a rush. I was learning there was no limit to what a rock band could accomplish if they had the ambition, artistic credibility, and instrumental chops, and to me this was the capper of a brilliant trio of albums from the Who.

9. Stone Temple Pilots – Core (1992)

I became aware of STP because of the radio playing “Sour Girl” and an acoustic version of “Plush” in 2000, and a friend loaned me a copy of Tiny Music while on a cross-country meet, but it wasn’t until I heard “Wicked Garden” from the band’s 1992 debut that I was hooked. Core was and still is a fantastic hard rock record throughout, the kind that gives you a deliberate rush and gets you lost in the haze.


10. U2 – War (1983)

This one and The Best Of 1980-1990 were mainstays in my adolescence, showcasing the spiritual, the political and the personal. I don’t listen to this one much anymore outside of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” still a top three song for the band, but there was a time where its power and passion introduced me to a sound and a global approach that had not existed in the classic rock I had grown up with.


11. Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction (1987)

The first time I heard this was at a cousin’s house, at age 10, and it was a little bit scary. I didn’t understand most of what Axl Rose was yowling about, but the hard rock was bracing and thrilling. The older I got, the better it got, especially once I realized the power of music as a catharsis for demons and otherwise inexpressible emotions. And although my high school years consisted of angry white-guy misspelled bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Linkin Park, it always seemed like they could never touch the danger and thrill of prime GnR. I’m sure they would be the first to agree.


12. Van Halen – 1984 (1984)

Loud, funny, and cool, Van Halen always puts a smile on my face, and none more so than on this record. I can do without hearing “Jump” and “Drop Dead Legs,” but the rest of the album is one of the most fun half hours you’ll ever spend, and for a cross-country runner, an album like this was necessary.


13. Jars of Clay – Jars of Clay (1995)

Every so often in the ‘90s, a Christian rock band would break through to the mainstream, and during the height of the WWJD bracelets and Pope John Paul II fever in the late ‘90s came this acoustic disc. I was raised Catholic and attended youth group frequently, and my high school friends and teammates were all either Catholic or Christian, so it was hard to escape hearing the single “Flood,” but there was more to the disc than just that one song. The haunting imagery and echo-laden vocals of “Liquid” questioned the faith with honesty and reverence, while “Worlds Apart” is beautiful and authentic. I have memories of camping in the summer with my friends and playing these songs on our guitars on the shore of Lake Michigan.


14. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)

I was vaguely aware of these guys in middle school and loved “Jeremy” even then, but it wasn’t until college that I really started exploring…and when they rocketed to the position of my favorite band. No matter what season of my life has occurred between 2001 and the present, this album remains darn near perfect, an emotional, terse, hard-hitting rock album that remains fresh with repeated plays. If my brain was flattened into an album groove, I’m sure the guitar solo to “Alive” would be imprinted somewhere in the center, right behind whatever I remember from Psychology 101 and right in front of my first published college newspaper article.


15. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)

As with most people immersed in the college experience, your education winds up being multi-faceted, and not just academically. For me, my musical education was not only to get caught up on current rock (by working as a DJ at the college radio station) but to backtrack to the great ‘90s rock that I had missed as a teenager, as well as great classic rock, prog and jazz. I have taken some heat over the years for being a Chili Peppers fan, but for me the twin peaks of By The Way and especially this 1991 disc are personal favorites; Blood Sugar Sex Magik, for a time, rarely left my CD Walkman (Kids: it was like an iPod, except you could only listen to one CD at a time, and it skipped if you bumped into something). To this day, I still crank up “Give It Away,” much to the chagrin of everybody.

16. Dave Matthews Band – Under The Table And Dreaming (1994)

I suspect that most people attending college in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s went through a DMB phase, and I had never heard the guy (that I knew of) until I arrived at my first dorm at Central Michigan. But what started as a curio turned into a thing when I purchased Under The Table, which drew me in with its hypnotic five-man-jam band acoustical power. I don’t listen to DMB much anymore, but this record always reminds me of why they were so special to so many.


17. The Stooges – Fun House (1970)

The opposite of progressive rock, at least according to Rolling Stone, is regressive rock, and nobody epitomized it better than these guys. Maybe it’s because I live about 10 minutes north of where Iggy Pop was born and raised and about half an hour from the legendary Grande Ballroom, but something about this basic pounding Michigan rock just stuck with me. Punk and grunge wouldn’t exist without these guys; it’s primal, no-frills garage rock, and sometimes that’s all you need.


18. Oasis – What’s the Story (Morning Glory) (1995)

For some reason, the brilliance and magnetic pull of this disc never hit me the first few times; it wasn’t until I was living in upstate New York and working my first real job that I heard this in a new light. It started a fascination with Britpop and Madchester music and, for some reason, really struck a nerve with me about a decade after everyone else figured it out. No matter.


19. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)

I’m a Michigan man and so have a healthy, necessary love of all things Motown, but it wasn’t until I was older than I was able to hear this masterpiece in its entirety and realize just how amazing Marvin Gaye was. The album acquiesced to no one in its protesting or its so-called lack of commercial potential, part of Gaye rebelling against the Motown machine and partly because he had something to say about society.


20. R.E.M. – And I Feel Fine, The Best of the IRS Years 1982-1987 (2006)

All I knew about R.E.M was the big radio hits, and I was fine with that, but as it turned out there was so much more. I used this hits collection as a springboard to discovering the original five albums and shifted from a middle-period REM fan to an early-band fan, particularly Reckoning, Fables, and Document, all fantastic albums. But it started with this impulse pickup.

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