What records have had the greatest impact on YOUR life? Here’s 10 of mine.
By Fred Mills
It started as an innocent Facebook “make a list” meme—favorite records, blah blah blah. Me being the extemporaneous gasbag that I am, I took the concept and ran with it. Well, strolled might be a more accurate description. But it did seem that certain records have had a profound impact upon me as a person and not simply as a music journalist. So this is not my all-time Top Ten; it’s more of a confessional. (Thanks to fellow music maniac Glenn Boothe for tagging me in the first place and getting me started here—now you know who to blame.)
Day 1 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.
Various Artists – Garden of Delights 3LP
In ’71 my record buying options were pretty limited; I was still 3 years away from shipping off to Chapel Hill for college (but when I did finally get there, I encountered my first store that sold both new and used records, so things would ramp up considerably, as would the balance on my parents’ Visa card), and while my hometown’s five-and-dime as well as Mack’s Record Rack mom-and-pop store did stock albums and singles, including stuff like Cream, Hendrix, and Steppenwolf, the odds of them having an album like this one were pretty low. So it’s likely that I found this at a headshop in Charlotte, about an hour away, called Infinity’s End, as they had a small but vital bin of records that was very much of an underground bent. I bought my first hippie fanzine there as well, along with patches, headbands, rolling papers, etc.
This compilation was a revelation and it completely rebooted my mind, much like those great Warner Bros/Reprise 2LP “loss leaders” collections of the era had done. It’s not every day you see the Stooges, Judy Collins, Atomic Rooster, Renaissance, Love, Crabby Appleton, Incredible String Band, Spider John Koerner, Tim Buckley, Audience, and Earth Opera all on the same album, testimony to the genuinely visionary – culturally subversive, too – nature of the Elektra label at the time. And it was also my first exposure to over half the artists, notably David Ackles, Roxy, Bamboo, Rhinoceros, Koerner, Earth Opera, and the Voices of East Harlem – several became instant faves. The album also had full liner notes on the sleeves of all three LPs that detailed each artist – more fully, in fact, than the aforementioned WB/Reprise titles – effectively schooling me in ways very few albums had done previously. If this were to be released for the first time today, I’d be all over it like the true #vinylporn hound that I am.
I can’t say I’m all that interested in multi-artist anthologies these days, but in the ’70s, compilations were our mixtapes and playlists, and the gateways to discovering new music, particularly if there wasn’t a non-Top 40 radio station with reception in your hometown. So there’s both cultural significance and an emotional resonance attached to Garden of Delights for me. For the rest of you, there are plenty of cheap copies at Discogs, and I’m not sure if it’s ever been on CD, so it is well-worth the purchase.
Day 2 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.
Flamin’ Groovies – Shake Some Action (Sire, 1976)
I already owned “Teenage Head” and loved it, but when Cyril and the gang went full Carnaby Street and tuned up the 12-string, something seismic occurred. The title (and opening) track alone was downright volcanic – journalists (yours truly included) have written entire essays just on that song. And as I have mentioned many times, my family has orders to play the song at my funeral ‘cos I want folks to leave the church grinning and singing along; the ushers have been instructed to allow air guitar as well.
For me, the album also represents one of those classic scenarios you only get from walking into a record store. In ’76 I was attending UNC-Chapel Hill and living in a trailer nearby, just over the Chatham County line (no pun intended). The first North Carolina Schoolkids Records was on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill (original location, two door down from the Varsity Theater), and it had been recently opened by a young hippie couple from, if memory serves, Ann Arbor or somewhere in that vicinity of Michigan. Kinks-worshiping and savvy retail merchants, they had sized me and my musical tastes up early on and would tip me to new releases they thought I might dig. My parents didn’t “dig” the subsequent uptick on their monthly MasterCard statement… but I digress. So there I am one sunny afternoon, wandering into the store, and John, the co-owner, nodded, reached over to the bin of LPs beside the house stereo, and dug one out. “Hey Fred, I bet you’ll like this new one, you ever hear of the Flamin’ Groovies?” Yes, I had, but not the new LP. He lowered the needle onto side A, and my mind proceeded to be blasted into outer space well past the rings of Saturn….
Trust me, you won’t get anywhere near a similar experience browsing the playlists on Spotify, or letting the algo-bots of Amazon making suggestions. Support your local indie record store!
Day 3 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.
Spirit – 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (Epic, 1970)
The 1970-72 period yielded a ton of records that would go on to be among my all-time faves, and the 4th album by Spirit is easily in my top 10. In 1970 I was already into the band to a degree, having been primed from the get-go with early single “I Got a Line On You.” But I didn’t have all the records yet. “12 Dreams” wrapped its sonic tendrils around me like nobody’s business, and I even bought the 8-track version as well so I could hear it in the car.
In fact, the first time I heard it was on 8-track. A vivid memory I have is of riding to Charlotte with friends for a concert one evening, and as I sat in the back seat of Bryant Hunt’s green Mustang fastback, the (cough) “enhanced mood” gradually coming over me, the Spirit album unfolded in metaphysical waves to match that “mood.” I can even hear in my mind right now the telltale “ka-CHUNk!” as the 8-track player advanced each of the 4 programs. (For all you kids scratching your heads about what I’m describing: go look it up.)
Years later, in 1991, I was interviewing guitarist Randy California from Hawaii and I related that anecdote and he got a huge laugh from it – and he genuinely seemed to appreciate getting praise for his work over the years and “12 Dreams” in particular. “We did know it was special, yes,” he replied to me, ever the fanboy, asking a lot of obvious questions along with a few pretty insightful ones (if I do say so myself), when I asked him did he know it was a different kind of record when they had finished it, given that the original lineup would split very soon afterwards.
Randy died tragically in ’97 while saving his young son from a riptide off the Hawaiian coast, and I bawled when I got the news, having by that time scooped up every available Spirit record and California solo recs and well into a live tape collecting habit. I still miss him terribly, and “12 Dreams,” with key tracks like “Nature’s Way,” “Nothing to Hide,” and “Morning Will Come,” has never been too far from my heart.
Day 4 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.
DJ Shadow – Endtroducing (Mo’ Wax, 1996)
“The music’s coming through me”… it sure went through me, too. Sometimes a measure of a record’s timelessness is how many reissues it has undergone, and in the case of Shadow’s epochal debut, with Discogs.com listing in excess of 40 iterations, one supposes that’s a pretty strong argument. And even if you have gone for the deluxe/expanded versions, which admittedly yielded all manner of crucial-listening proximate material, remixes, reimaginings, etc., the original 1996 release is THE one to own, and THE one for unadulterated listening.
I was working at Zia Record Exchange in Tucson at the time of its release, and as the store’s import buyer, had already caught the buzz on DJ Shadow, and I subsequently ordered heavily on any imports and singles the album yielded – “What Does Your Soul Look Like” remains a stone classic of the nebulous genre known at the time as trip-hop.
Soon enough I found myself on the telephone interviewing the artist for Magnet magazine, and rather than suffer through a conversation with an obvious sampling/hip-hop neophyte (that would be me), Shadow patiently discussed his motivations and inspirations, and even a few of his methods. At one point he asked me about record stores in Tucson, and he audibly became excited when I told him about a nearby store that was 95% vinyl, one that even had a special “invite only” vinyl inner sanctum for pre-approved customers. I have no doubt that he went crate-digging in Tucson the next time he came through Arizona.
The album as a whole is soulful, nebulous, psychedelic as fuck, and amazing music to listen to barreling down the highway – a perfect road-tripping album. A few years ago Magnet had me, a former editor and contributor to the magazine, contribute to a feature on the greatest albums of the ‘90s: My choice was, no question, “Endtroducing,” and it remains my selection to this day. I’m Fred Mills, and I approved this message.
Day 5 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.
The Who – Live at Leeds (1970, Decca/Track)
Another entry from the 1970-72 period that was so influential upon a young Fred Mills, stuck in a tiny North Carolina nowheresville and counting the months until he might be able to ship off to college. People will debate endlessly over WHAT IS THE GREATEST EVER LIVE ROCK ALBUM: Is it the Allman’s “Fillmore East”? The Stones’ “Ya-Ya’s”? MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”? Nirvana’s “Unplugged”? Cheap Trick’s “Budokan”? FRAMPTON FUCKING COMES ALIVE?!? (I’ve always been mildly offended that Humble Pie’s “Rockin’ the Fillmore” doesn’t regularly make these lists, but I digress…)
“Live at Leeds” is obviously “THE” greatest—there’s no comparison, no live platter as viscerally thrilling, as brick-in-face immediate, as GENUINELY live (e.g., no post-production “sweetening in the mix” going on). The original single LP still wields a hypnotic power over yours truly, just like it did in 1970 to my teenage brain. Since then, a number of expanded iterations have been released—the bootleggers, naturally, beat the band’s official label to the punch—primarily in order to showcase the “Tommy” portion of the Leeds concert that was not originally included. All versions are must-hear, a point I made in a 2,500-word review for Goldmine Magazine in 2001, on the occasion of the release of MCA’s 2-CD expanded reissue. But you still owe it to yourself to experience the record as it was originally intended, from the track sequencing to the duly noted, intermittent, crackling sounds in the audio to the memorabilia-stuffed sleeve (which was designed to mimic classic bootleg LP sleeves like the Stones title mentioned above and Dylan’s “Great White Wonder.”
Within a year of the release of “Leeds” I would finally get to see the Who in concert, in Charlotte NC touring behind “Who’s Next.” A decent chunk of “Leeds” material was still in the band’s setlist, and the show remains in my all-time Top Ten concerts… hmmm…. NO ONE on FB has ever thought about starting THAT tagging meme, right?
Day 6 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.
Sidewinders – Witchdoctor / Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall (1989 & 1990, Mammoth/RCA)
I’m cheating somewhat by listing two albums here. But (a) they are, indeed, of a piece, to such a degree that I sometimes find myself having a hard time remembering exactly which song goes on which album; and (b) for a long time I carried around a c90 cassette in my car that had both albums on it. The Tucson band played so-called “desert rock” – a mélange of garage and power pop with occasional classic rock leanings (think Tom Petty meets Neil Young), and infused with primal energy and some of the most pristine melodies you could get this side of Neil Diamond. It’s not a coincidence that one of their best tunes was a cover of “Solitary Man.”
By 1990 I was deeply in love with Tucson bands, thanks to discovering them via English zine Bucketful of Brains, and subsequently writing about them myself in US zine The Bob and elsewhere. By 1992 I was LIVING in Tucson, subsequently meeting and hanging out with members of the Sidewinders, River Roses, Giant Sand (including future Calexico members), Naked Prey, Al Perry & the Cattle, Rainer & Das Combo, and more. (I was a few years away from meeting this awesome Arizona band called The Beat Angels, but all in due time…) Admittedly, the grass is always greener from afar, and when I did move to Arizona and eased my way into the local music scene, some of my idealism dissipated as I realized dope really had its grip on some otherwise brilliant, talented folks and it undercut their mojo.
But even though I moved back to NC after a 10-year run in Tucson, the place permanently holds a special place in my heart. In fact, it was the Sidewinders song “Get Out of that Town” that started the love affair: One night, when my wife and I were looking at places we might want to move to, having started to burn out on Charlotte, we were literally on the verge of throwing darts at a map of the US. Pouring another glass of wine for each of us, I cued up the Sidewinders, and the aforementioned song began to play: “Get out of that shopping mall,” sang the band, “C’mon down here!” And while they were referring specifically to Arizonans getting out of Phoenix and relocating to the far more culturally progressive Tucson, the fact that we North Carolinians had been slogging away working at malls for way too long made the song seem personalized for us. Two vacations and one Mayflower moving truck to Tucson later, we arrived on July 5, 1992. The heat that first month or so just about did me in, but with the Sidewinders and some of those other bands I mentioned, I knew I’d be able to make it.
Day 7 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.
Patti Smith – Horses (1975, Arista)
This is a no-brainer. Not only did she revolutionize the whole notion of “women in rock” – in the process demolishing the earlier objectification “chicks in rock” – Patti subverted the so-called feminine “ideal,” which of course had been a patriarchal construct. In the process, she became a hero to both females and, dare I say it, males (including this one). Put another way, she grabbed the baton passed to her from the likes of Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Joan Jett from the Runaways, and the Millington Sisters from Fanny, and outpaced all the subsequent rock ‘n’ roll competition.
“Horses” itself was revolutionary, from its surreal poetry and pointed sexuality to its punk/garage musicality and invocations of an earlier rock ‘n’ roll era. I must have played it 6 times in a row the day I brought it home from the store – I still own my original copy, and it’s hopelessly battered (thank you, Record Store Day, for the 180gm reissue a few years ago).
I communed with Patti twice, in significant fashion. The first time was when the band came to Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill for the Radio Ethiopia tour, and I managed to ease my way into the stage crew by simply showing up at soundcheck and offering my services. Naturally I grabbed a few opportunities to get autographs and yak with the bandmembers. One abiding memory is of some fellow students gathering outside the venue to listen to soundcheck, a couple of them clutching gifts for Patti, and she instructed the security to let them in and allow them to stay (it was a general admission show I think). A classy lady who cares very much about “the people.” She walks it like she talks it.
The other time was not long after my mom died, a phone interview for a Goldmine Magazine cover story. Ironically, I conducted it from my mom’s house while I was living there in my home town for a few months to get it cleared out and cleaned up and ready for sale. I told her how I’d had 1996’s “Gone Again” with me during a summer beach vacation that also turned out to be the last time I’d be able to spend extended quality time with Mama – and how, ever since, I’ve associated that album with those memories. “I hope they are good memories,” Patti murmured, noting that one key through-line of the album for her was the notion of loss and how we process it. She added, “Sometimes, the role of the artist is to provide a shoulder for the rest of us to lean on when we most need it.”
Thank you, Patti, for offering that shoulder when I needed it.
Day 8 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.
Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros – Global A-Go-Go (2001, Hellcat)
This FB exercise is technically about albums that “made an impact” on me, and not an all-time Top Ten list; for the latter, my list would probably change every year, whereas here I’ve been talking about stuff closer to Desert Island Disc territory. The second Strummer/Mescaleros album certainly qualifies, and not simply because it has some kickass music on it while also showing off Joe’s more eclectic impulses as well as his democratic approach to fronting a band.
Prior to its release I had a CDR promo of the album from Hellcat as I was preparing a couple of stories on Joe, one of them for the Phoenix New Times (I interviewed him over the phone from England in advance of some Southwest and West Coast shows; at this point we had given birth to our son in early 2001 so we’d moved back from AZ to NC to be closer to family, but I was still writing for a couple of weeklies in the region… ah, the good old days of freelancing, when you could actually make a credible living as a music writer…). I had also arranged to interview in person in NYC, where the band was going to appear at Irving Plaza the same week as the CMJ convention; this was to be a cover story for Magnet Magazine. So the morning of my flight north had arrived, my bags were packed – along with my Strummer notes – and sitting beside the front door. Then the phone rang, and it was my wife’s sister: “Turn on the TV fast.”
This was the morning of 9/11. You know the rest. Needless to say, my plans changed instantly.
(I would still get my NYC sojourn, a month later, as Strummer’s original date was cancelled and rescheduled. And I’d still write my cover story, even winding up in Dick Rude’s Strummer doc “Let’s Rock Again,” which included footage of the band onstage and backstage at Irving Plaza. Strummer was awesome. We talked about 9/11 a little, too, and it clearly had shaken him as well.)
But for the time being, the psychic discombobulation of 9/11 was profound, and intense. We decided to get away from TV and news reports for a few days and rented a cabin near Asheville, about 4 hours away from my hometown where we’d been living. The only media we consumed on the trip were newspapers and WNCW-FM, a community station out of nearby Spindale with a heavy Americana focus. Not a talk or news station. And as it turns out, the just-released Mescaleros album had gone into heavy rotation on WNCW, so it basically became my de facto soundtrack for the mountain trip.
To this day, I associated the songs on the record, and Joe in general, with 9/11, all the shock and horror and grief… and the deep, abiding sense of relief and love I took from knowing that I had been with my wife and kid, and not on a flight to NYC, when the towers fell. Those feelings of relief and love, and a kind of mental smile, are what I still experience when I listen to “Global A-Go-Go.” What a gift. Thanks, Joe.
Day 9 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.
The Slits – Cut (1979, Island Records)
Like all of the other entries I’ve been writing about, this album has a significance for me that goes far beyond the music. Of that music: released during the punk explosion, its blazing blend of rock and dub was unlike anything else I’d been listening to, and it quickly went into heavy rotation on the Mills stereo. That the nude cover itself was outrageous goes without saying, a bold feminist statement intended to both shock – it wasn’t every day you’d see three attractive young females standing topless and deliberately de-prettifying themselves so overtly; this was not a strip club mud wrestling depiction, in other words – and teach. I’m pretty sure more than a few record stores sold it in a paper bag, or at least with paper across the breasts. I like to call this record, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the dub.”
Cut to late 2004, and I’m on the phone to the Slits’ Ari Up. A slightly expanded CD of “Cut” was about to be released in the US, so I was doing a story for Harp Magazine on the record and the band. She was utterly delightful, with a great memory for detail, a self-deprecating sense of personal pride, and comfortable in her own skin and with her legacy, which certainly wasn’t a huge as, say, her peers in the Clash or the Pistols, but she knew that the Slits had been pretty damn influential, and an inspiration to female rockers operating in a male-centric music business. One memorable portion of the conversation involved her recounting some of the harassment she’d experienced as a woman, particularly a woman who “invited” abuse by being deliberately in-your-face, visually.
She even teased me a little when we talked about the LP sleeve and I mentioned that I’d had it up on my wall across from my desk: “You haven’t said yet how good I look on my website,” she giggled, referring to her current musical activities. I think I mumbled something about downloading photos off her website to hang beside the Slits album, and her throaty laughter told me she was pleased that she could still work her charms on a hapless male journalist.
A few years later I would interview her again about her solo projects, and she was just as much fun a conversationalist; I’d also get to see her performed with a reunited Slits during SXSW one year. She passed away, sadly, in late 2010, following a battle with cancer.
I’ll never forget that wicked laugh of hers, and I have hopes that now, in the #metoo era, a new generation of young female artists will discover her and her music and draw inspiration from it.
Day 10 of 10 days. 10 all-time favorite albums. What really made an impact and is still on your rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain (unless you want to), and then nominate one of your FB friends to share theirs.
[TIE] U2 – The Unforgettable Fire (1984, Island) / Dream Syndicate – Medicine Show (1984, A&M
Obviously I’m cheating here for my final entry by listing two. But my mid-’80s memories are indelibly inked with these two classics, and they continue to inform my emotions and ideals to this day.
“I got a Page One story buried in my yard”:@ The Dream Syndicate‘s second full-length hit me with a psychic immediacy I didn’t anticipate, for as powerful as its predecessor, “The Days of Wine and Roses,” was, this -to me, at least – marked a quantum leap in both the songwriting of frontman Steve Wynn and the collective group’s ability to remain true to its Amerindie ethos and its willingness to step into the void and embrace the potential of mass appeal. (We can all thank R.E.M. for laying down that particular blueprint…)
To this day, both the smouldering noir-rock narrative “Burn” and psych-skronk epic “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” bring me to my knees, and with last year’s return to the record bins by the band, accompanied by extensive touring, it’s clear from that Wynn understands that he and his band have created a legacy as meaningful as any rock band you’d care to mention. And what a timeless album he and his compadres crafted. I feel honored to have seen the Dream Syndicate in its prime and touring behind the record, and even more chuffed to have interviewed Wynn when it finally got remastered and reissued on CD, a free-wheeling conversation that detailed the lead-up to, the making of, and the aftermath surround “Medicine Show.” (Read it here: https://blurtonline.com/…/scene-crime-steve-wynn-dream-synd…/ ) There’s not a bad record in the D.S. or Wynn solo catalog, and the group has become a contemporary force unto itself with 2017’s “How Did I Find Myself Here.” But “Medicine Show” is in a league all its own. Front-page news, indeed.
U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” has a specific Mills backstory I’ve told many times, so just go here ( https://blurtonline.com/feature/joshua-tree-u2/ ) to read it in case you are so inclined. In a nutshell, the 1984 album came out at a time when I was neck-deep in publishing a U2 zine called U2/USA, and as the band hadn’t quite gone mega in the U.S. just yet – that would come with in 1987, with “The Joshua Tree” – little publications such as ours were still able to enjoy access (and in our case, occasional unlimited access) to the U2 extended family. Sitting alone in an Atlanta arena dressing room with Bono one night, after the concert, and passing a bottle of wine back and forth while conducting an interview, is one of those “tell the grandchildren…” stories that a lot of my fellow rock journalists will no doubt identify with.
This isn’t about that. Rather, “TUF“‘s spiritual and emotional impact upon me at the time is what I remember the most. It opened a lot of possibilities within me, the kind that I want to think led me on a search on how to become a better person and how to care about the world beyond my little self-centered bubble. I realize that’s a ridiculous cliché, and I probably never genuinely lived up to that type of lofty ideal; it’s not like I suddenly got religion (although I would experience some moments in the album’s aftermath that I can only describe as “metaphysical”), or that I suddenly became a die-hard activist (although since January of 2017, I have gradually found myself renewing certain social vows I took three decades prior, and remembering why I took them), or even that I suddenly surrendered all my vices and proceeded to live a life on the straight and narrow (don’t get me started). But because the album arrived at the proverbial time and place, and as I was approaching a crossroads of sorts in my own life, I associate it with a period of learning and renewal for me.
Rock ‘n’ roll can be a catalyst for change, after all. It’s not just dope, guns, and fucking in the street.