Transcendent Tunes

10 albums that changed my world but never won a Grammy

Award show season is coming to a close. The big ones (Grammys, Tonys, Oscars) have all been distributed to this year’s winners and those of us who were not nominated for anything have had a chance to argue with one another about why our favorite stars should have won. Americans love award shows. It is strange in some respects because the movies, shows and music that garner awards every year are rarely our personal favorites. Our relationship to a movie or album is so personal. When it comes to the music that is most important to us, we probably feel an affinity to it because of the emotions it evokes, or the memories associated with it, and not because of any awards it may or may not have won.

Music can make the human soul more supple and open to God. Recently, I have been moving through a rather daunting and substantial life transition. Everything that I thought I knew was suddenly called into question and I needed to stand before God and be more vulnerable than I had ever been before. During this period, a very dear friend gave me a disc by Marc Cohn and told me to listen to track 4, a song called “Dig Down Deep.” In this song, Cohn pleads to his lover to “go below the surface” with him and risk seeking a deeper and more fulfilling happiness. This song’s satisfying rhythm and encouraging lyrics put me at ease and helped me to take a step forward instead of cowering in my fears.

Besides the Marc Cohn disc, I have compiled a list of 10 CDs that have also been very important to me of late. Some are fun pop collections and others contain more technical jazz. These are not my all time favorites, but rather, a list of music that has lifted my spirits during a very difficult period in my life. What music is most important to you? I invite you to consider what music has served as a beacon of hope during your own times of distress, or that helps you remember some of the milestones of your life with vivid clarity. Perhaps none of your selections won awards, but if they lifted your spirits, they accomplished something far greater…

1. Aimee Mann: Bachelor No. 2
Surface Stats: Mann formerly fronted the 80’s pop group ‘Til Tuesday, and she struck out on her own in the early 90’s. Mann is one of the most consistent and melodic contemporary songwriters. “Bachelor No. 2” is, in my opinion, her best, but all of her attempts are worthwhile. (see also, ‘Til Tuesday: “Everything’s Different Now”).
Transcendent Tidbit: If you have ever been in painful relationship–and, if you haven’t what’s wrong with you?–this music will give you comfort.

2. Flying Burrito Brothers: Millennium Collection
Surface Stats: The “Millennium Collection,” from what I can tell, is a “best of” series that includes a number of musicians compiled by people who know music. This particular installment is particularly excellent. The Flying Burrito Brothers gave birth to the sub-genre of music known as “alt-country” currently manifest by bands like Wilco and the Jayhawks. Fronted by the inspired Gram Parsons, the Burritos perform beautifully crafted songs that are just rocking enough for rock fans and just enough of a country tinge for C&W fans. The hybrid, though, is greater than the sum of its parts. (see also: Gram Parsons “GP” and “Grievous Angel”).
Transcendent Tidbit: Like much of the music that has its roots in country, heartache is a central theme. The Burrito Brothers offer some consolation to those of us who are sick at heart.

3. John Scofield: Go Go
Surface Stats: Scofield has been re-inventing jazz guitar music for decades. Formerly Miles Davis’ axe man, Scofield has amassed quite a following from his varied and exciting solo career. For this disc, Scofield teamed up with contemporary jazzy-funk meisters Medeski, Martin and Wood, a band with an excellent career of their own. MMW’s organ-infused bass and drum licks give Scofield a more funky edge and seem to push him to a higher level of playing. This collaboration was a match made in jazz heaven—it is too bad it was so short lived.
Transcendent Tidbit: Scofield’s “groove” will grab you and carry you away from your anxieties.

4. Semisonic: All About Chemistry
Surface Stats:
This is my most recent musical surprise! A friend of mine recommended the third and final disc by this Minneapolis-based trio and I looked at him with utter shock. “You mean the guys who did ‘Closing Time’?”—one of the most overplayed and annoying songs of about six years ago. I took a risk with this purchase, but it paid off in a big way! This disc is a nearly perfect collection of pop songs, chock full of beautiful melodies, meaningful lyrics and some great playing. This music is almost guaranteed to lift your spirits and give you renewed faith in contemporary pop music.
Transcendent Tidbit: No rocket science necessary. Pure and simple, “All About Chemistry” will make you happy!

5. Bryan Ferry: Frantic
Surface Stats:
As far as I’m concerned, former Roxy Music lead singer Ferry is the coolest dude in music today! He has a classy air about him and it bursts forth in his music. On this, his latest in a long series of solo attempts, Ferry risks a couple of Dylan covers and pulls it off with aplomb. Over the years Ferry’s voice has mellowed and now has a quasi-nightclub feel to it that accentuates the smoky sophistication of his more recent works. Ferry has never been afraid of taking chances, which is a welcome change in this time of so much formulaic, predictable pop music.
Transcendent Tidbit: Unlike so much pop music today that caters to a suspended adolescence, Ferry’s music has the effect of making me feel, for lack of a better word, adult.

6. Patricia Barber: Nightclub
Surface Stats:
It used to be that Barber was just a local Chicago favorite and you could sit 10 feet from her piano at the Green Mill Jazz Club for a paltry 2 dollar cover on Sunday nights. Her recent national exposure inhibits such an intimate connection with local fans, but it is great news for jazz vocalist fans across the U.S. While she will never achieve the fame of Norah Jones, Barber is an incredibly sophisticated singer-songwriter. She seems to breathe life into her music as she sings, and she uses her piano not to show off her talent (which is impressive), but rather to give each piece a unique texture.
Transcendent Tidbit: In Barber’s “Nightclub” listeners are soothed.

7. Steve Earle: Jerusalem
Surface Stats:
This album’s controversial “John Walker’s Blues,” written about the naïve American citizen turned Taliban wanna-be brought in a lot of press for Earle’s music recently. Earle has lived a tough life, doing a stint in prison on a drug charge and recovering from his own additions. If there is a positive side to these experiences, it would be that Earle can write and play songs from a place of desperation and authenticity, and for this reason, he is one of the most important and relevant songwriters around today.
Transcendent Tidbit: Regardless of your politics, Earle will make you think.

8. King’s X: Gretchen Goes to Nebraska
Surface Stats:
It may sound cliché, but King’s X is definitely the best band you’ve never heard of! With thick-sounding 3-part harmonies enmeshed in heavy riffs and crisp drumming, this power trio is definitely one of the most important but overlooked bands in the last 15 years. On “Gretchen…”, their second and most popular disc, the band treats the listener to a wide range of musical styles, from the mellow acoustic vibe of “The Difference” to the gospel-influenced “Over My Head,” this music keeps the listener thoroughly entertained!
Transcendent Tidbit: Following Gretchen to Nebraska will energize you and
make you feel alive.

9. Ben Folds: Rockin’ the Suburbs
Surface Stats: When a former player in a great band goes solo and produces a collection of songs like this, you know he really was the genius behind his former band’s success. Ben Folds has a melodic sense and a sense of humor, which makes listening to these tunes a fun experience. Folds is not afraid to let his thirty-something concerns come through in his lyrics, but never takes himself too seriously.
Transcendent Tidbit: Folds will cheer you up and even make you laugh out loud…

10. Spock’s Beard: Day for Night
Surface Stats:
Definitely the most odd choice on this list. Spock’s Beard is modern day prog-rock superpower in the vein of Yes, Kansas, ELP and Genesis. They are a group of technically superior musicians, led by songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse (Morse has recently become a born-again Christian and left the band.) The highlight is the six-part epic, “The Healing Colors of Sound.” If you like long, bombastic, but elegantly melodic music unlike anything else being created today, Spock’s Beard is hard to beat.
Transcendent Tidbit: As any Trekkie worth their weight will tell you, “Spock’s” technical virtuosity will amaze you.