20 Albums That Matter

I still buy new music, mostly in the rootsy/Americana genre these days, but I rarely find the albums really transformative and I have a tendency to move on to the next selection fairly quickly. It’s also fair to say that my tastes before I was 25 ran straight to Top 40 artists. But I started getting flavors of other things once I moved out of smaller towns, and those completely changed my musical interests.

Here are 20 albums and compilations that have really affected my tastes over the past 35 years. There’s a surprising amount of blues in here, and surprisingly little of the Americana I listen to now, but there are a lot of albums that kind of mix up various genres a little bit. Three chords and the truth, baby: That’s where the soul of man can be found.

These are in no particular order.

Sonnyboy Williamson — More Real Folk Blues: I first heard a Sonnyboy recording in the mid-1980s in Little Rock (a fact that is true about a lot of these picks). I was a casual harp player and could not believe the tone he was getting out of that thing, which wasn’t being distorted by a cheap mic or run through a guitar amp. It was just beautiful. And his songs were word paintings. This album is packed with some of his greatest performances.

Beat Farmers — Van Go: The whole Southern California rock-country-punk edge thing in the back half of the 1980s was vastly appealing to me, and this was one of the best bands of the era. I always thought they could have fit on the Top 40 but they never really got there, and I sang (badly) a version of ‘Riverside’ for years in the band I played in at the time.

BoDeans – Love&Hope&Sex&Dreams: I still play this album fairly regularly. “Runaway” always seems like a perfect single to me, as does “Still the Night.”

The Cobra Records Story: This is one of the few compilations on this list. I knew nothing about Cobra when I bought it, but the CD selection looked good in the record store. Soon I was listening to such hip songs as “Shake It” by Duke Jenkins and His Orchestra, along with early stuff by Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. Willie Dixon recorded here, too, after he’d had it with getting his royalties ripped off by Chess Records. It’s just a great set of discs that stand in alternative with a similar set from Chess.

James Harman — 2 Sides to Every Story: I like harp players who do more than just play endless “Look at me!” riffs, and I specially like guys who can front a band with their voice and personality. Harman scores on those fronts, and he’s also an excellent songwriter. I covered “If the Shoe Fits, Wear It” from this album for decades.


Drive-By Truckers — Southern Rock Opera: My introduction to the DBTs, as well as an intro to one of my favorite phrases: ‘The duality of the Southern thing.’ On the surface, this seems like a rockin’ album from a bunch of rough-edged Southerners; below the surface, it is something very, very different.


Jason Isbell — Southeastern: This album was my introduction to Isbell, who had just gotten sober and married after some rough times, and he’s subsequently risen to the front of the alt-country/Americana movement. You are dead inside if you can get through this album without being broken open a little; “Cover Me Up” will probably still be his signature song 30 years from now.


Junior Wells — Hoodoo Man Blues: A classic blues album from the guy who taught John Lennon how to play harp. It has great originals and covers, and is funky in a James-Brown-meets-the-blues kind of way. “Messin’ With the Kid,” in particular, is an absolute blues standard.


Little Charlie & the Nightcats — All the Way Crazy: This was my introduction to a jump blues band that toured nationally for decades, fronted by the incomparable Rick Estrin on harp and Charlie Baty on guitar. Estrin still tours under ‘Rick Estrin & the Nightcats’ and Baty passed recently; they both remain enormous influences.


Lone Justice: Maria McKee twirling around in a gingham dress and singing the raveup “He’s Workin’ Late” is one of my favorite memories of the 1980s. I loved every cut on this album and the band was even better live. Decades later, I learned that Tom Petty actually wrote “Ways to Be Wicked,” and I began performing the song on stage myself.

Los Lobos — How Will the Wolf Survive?: This album, more than any other, shifted my musical tastes. I first heard it at a memorable party in (I think) 1986, loved it from the opening riff of “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and got pulled into a rabbit hole of L.A.-based roots music that dominated my tastes for the rest of the decade.


Lucinda Williams — Car Wheels on a Gravel Road: I’d heard of Lucinda a little before ‘Car Wheels’ came out, but specifically remember reading a Rolling Stone critical rave about this album and thinking, “This sounds perfect.” It was. In addition to the powerful songwriting and some of Lucinda’s best singing, the album was just a testament to the power of tone. Some of my favorite guitar tones of all time are on this album.


Magic Sam — West Side Soul: It should be on every blues lover’s Top 10 album list, I believe. There’s his iconic cover of “Sweet Home Chicago,” his blues moaner “I Feel So Good,” and his hair-raising take of Willie Dixon’s “My Love Will Never Die.” Want to know what blues music feels like? Here you go.


New Orleans Party Classics: This Rhino compilation from the early 1990s is just an excellent introduction into the sounds of that city. Opening up with Professor Longhair’s “Go to the Mardi Gras,” and hitting on such chestnuts as “Iko Iko,” “Big Chief Part 1” and “Lil’ Liza Jane,” I have played this particular album hundreds of times. It cemented my love of New Orleans and its music.


R.E.M. — Reckoning: I wrote an entire post about this very album last year, which was the 35th anniversary of its release.


Rod Piazza — Live at B.B. King’s: I am much more influenced by 1990s blues harp players than by the blues masters, and Piazza is the master of the West Coast/jump blues sound that I love the most. He has plenty of technique but even better tone, and it’s shown off here better than any other album of his I’ve heard.


Southern Culture on the Skids — Dirt Track Date: How many times have I seen S.C.O.T.S over the last 25 years or so? I bet it’s been at least a dozen. But this is the album that still sticks with me, with its salutes to fried chicken, demolition derbies, cheap wine, Little Debbies and general southern celebrating. “White trash? Don’t call me that,” the band sings. They’re still singing that.


The Fabulous Thunderbirds — Girls Go Wild: That’s actually not the name of the band’s eponymous first album, but everyone calls it that, and it’s influenced whole generations of rootsy guitarists and harp players. This was my introduction to Kim Wilson, and through this album and this band, I eventually got to know the music of people like Lazy Lester, Jerry “Boogie” McCain, Slim Harpo and other artists I had never heard of. I’ve never met a blue musician of my generation who dislikes this album.


The Fire-Fury Records Story: This was a retrospective I stumbled across in a record store in the early 1990s. I bought it on a whim and played it again and again and again. It is loaded with great music, much of it from artists I didn’t know — Fire and Fury were labels run out of a Harlem record store — but I subsequently played several of these songs in bands. I fell into a serious Lightnin’ Hopkins obsession thanks to this package, learned more about King Curtis and Louis Jordan (the latter through covers on this album) and went a little nuts over Titus Turner’s “People Sure Act Funny (When They Get a Little Money). So. Good.


Kim Wilson — Tigerman: This was Wilson’s first solo album, and it was bluesier than the slightly broader offerings of the T-Birds. It’s another offering to the altar of great harmonica tone, and the covers are sooooo tasty.

Such times

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

A few months ago, I talked to my wife about how lucky I felt. I’ve lived this bizarre Zelig-like life in which incredible things just keep happening around me, and I’ve had more adventures and fun than I ever could have hoped or deserved. And now I’m living through all of this. It is not an adventure and it is not fun, but if it claims me (which is unlikely even in the worst of circumstances, a fact all of us need to keep in mind), I will have little to complain about. Even as this darkness closes in, I feel grateful.

Champions.

The Nats sucked. Let’s not kid ourselves: In May, it looked like the seven-year run of championship-caliber baseball was over for this team, which sat at 19-31 and looked truly terrible getting even there. I had given up on them and thought it was time to dump players and get a new manager. I, of course, was wrong.

Fast forward to today, after the Nats completed what I’d argue was the greatest comeback climb in the history of baseball. They won a dramatic and improbable World Series, 4 games to 3, coming from behind yet still again in Game 7 to break the Houston Astros. The mighty Astros — a resonable pick for the best team of the last 20 years — probably still wonder what hit them. So do I.

I wonder because I lived through the pain of those four other playoff years, including two years (2012 and 2017) when I thought the Nats were baseball’s best team. I lived through the most painful loss I’ve ever witnessed — the Game 5 collapse against St. Louis in 2012, when the Nats blew a 6-0 lead. I also was in the park in 2017, when the Cubs came back and won in a deciding game that had waves of nearly indescribable weirdness.

I thought this team was haunted. I actually was kind of glad its run looked like it was over, because I thought a few rebuilding years could pass, I could enjoy some non-pressure summer baseball, and perhaps the next World Series contender wouldn’t remember the horrors that the postseason provided. But no: The Nats roared back and made the playoffs as a wild card. I waited for the pain I was certain would come.

Actually, the wild card game against Milwaukee never felt painful. The Brewers scored early, handed over a 3-1 lead to the best reliever in the National League, and this looked like a garden-variety defeat that would end a comeback season. I admired it for what it was and settled in to enjoy the park for the last two innings of the year.

And the Nats scored three runs and won 4-3, with the winning run scoring on a bad-hop error from a Milwaukee outfielder.

Los Angeles was next. The Dodgers were clearly the National League’s best team and had gone to the World Series the past two years. Predictably, the Nats fell beind, both in overall games (2 to 1) and in the score in the deciding Game 5 (3-0). And they won that game, gloriously, with an improbable homer-driven rally against one of the best pitchers in baseball, followed by a soul-crushing grand slam in extra innings. What was happening here?

I felt sorry for St. Louis. I grew up a Cardinals fan, as I’ve often stated here, and most of my family live in Missouri and remain incredibly loyal. They remembered 2012, reminded me about it and expected a similar Nationals collapse, if not an even easier series victory for the Cardinals. Instead, the Cards got swept and two Nationals pitchers carried no-hitters into the late innings.

Next: The World Series. Holy shit, the World Series! I didn’t feel any real stress; almost anyone who knew anything about baseball considered Houston the big favorite, and even a complete Nats collapse couldn’t erase the joy of this season. In Vegas, the Nats were the biggest underdog since the Rockies in ’07 (the Rockies got swept), and deservedly so.

You know how that ended. More comebacks; the Nats trailed in every game they won, became the first champ in history to win four road games, and just generally sowed the all seeds of crazy. I’ll never see another World Series like it. It’s highly unlikely there will ever be another World Series like it.

I remember the exact moment I thought the Nats would win the series. It came after Lance Bregman hit that first-inning homer in Game 6 for Houston and adopted that ridiculous I-just-won-the-World-Series gaze-and-trot. It was as though he had learned nothing about his opponent. But Juan Soto adopted the same gaze-and-trot after a huge homer a few innings later, in an act of fantastic trolling, and the Astros fell. Then Kendrick snuck that homer over the wall and off the foul pole in Game 7; the pole rang like a bell, and you knew for whom the bell tolled. And then there was an epic parade a few days later.

This series was so improbable, so bizarre, so exciting, that it still hasn’t entirely sunk in. I’d rate this Nats team as the weakest of the five that have played in the post-season since 2012. Yet they are the ones who are World Series champs, defeating two incredibly powerful teams along the way, and no one can ever take that away from them.

Cast down that monkey!

I never felt really sad during Tuesday’s National League Wild Card game. Max Scherzer walked the leadoff hitter to start the game, the next guy hit a two-run homer, we were behind 2-0 and things did not look good. But it looked like the Nats would at least be beaten straight up instead of losing in the lead-blowing, soul-crushing fashion that had become their postseason specialty.

Another Milwaukee homer in the second made it 3-0, and I settled in to just enjoy the unseasonably warm evening and what was likely the last game of the season. The Nats were doing nothing at the plate, and this was all sort of a bonus anyway after their horrendous start to the season.

The game churned along in surprisingly quick fashion for a playoff matchup. Trea popped one out to make it 3-1, there were a couple of loud outs to the warning track, but nobody else was doing much. Max was pulled for a pinch-hitter, Strasburg came in and looked fantastic, and Ryan Zimmerman — who looked like he might be in his last game as a National, if not as a big-league ballplayer — got up and down twice to potentially pinch-hit. I could see into the dugout; the second time he was called back to the bench, he stomped around a bit.

That was also when the mysterious Dave Martinez, whose in-game management has been questioned all year, decided that Michael A. Taylor, of all people, was a better pick than Zim to pinch-hit. Taylor hit a huge home run and was nearly the hero of Game 5 against the Cubs in 2017, but the Nats collapsed and Taylor’s career went into a spiral. He spent most of this year in AA ball, and the weirdness of the wild card game — the Nats chose to stack their one-game roster with a ton of hitters — was the only reason he was in uniform.

Josh Hader, the Brewers closer, promptly hit Taylor with a pitch. It was a close call — Taylor got hit on the hands, and if the baseball hits the bat first, it’s a foul ball — but it got upheld after a challenge.

Zim finally got up as a pinch-hitter with two outs and Taylor on first. Vader threw him a nasty strike that sheared Zim’s bat into pieces on contact. And the ball loopingly, lazily fell into center field for a single. Suddenly, things were happening FOR the Nats that usually happened TO the Nats in the playoffs.

And up came the 20-year-old kid, Juan Soto. He laced a single into right to tie the game — and then Milwaukee’s right fielder, a rookie, misplayed the ball and let it get by him. The go-ahead run scored, Soto made a base-running error and got tagged out to end the inning — and just like that, the darkness had lifted and the Nats were three outs away from the win.

Daniel Hudson came in, gave up a scary warning track fly out that ended the game, and the Nats were winners. And an entire fan based grabbed that monkey off its back and threw it to the ground.

It’s all gravy now. The Dodgers are undoubtedly the best team in the National League, but the Nats were the best in the NL (if not in baseball) in 2012 and 2017. They got beat in the division series both times. This time, they’ll be a distinct underdog with little pressure on them. I like the chances.

Update, Oct. 10: We just killed off the Dodgers in even more dramatic fashion, winning a Game 5 that looked just like the Milwaukee game until a series of late, dramatic home runs. Howie Kendrick, who’d had a poor series, crushed a grand slam in the 10th to win it. The Cardinals are next. On we move.

In praise of Jim Bouton

When I was a kid, pretty much all baseball players were model citizens. We knew this because the sports pages told us so. Day after day, sportswriters informed us that these athletes were shining beacons of moral goodness, a credit to their teams and communities, and the kind of people who boys like me would do well to emulate.

Jim Bouton put an end to that. I read Ball Four, Bouton’s magnum opus about what professional baseball really was like, when I was 12 or so. That’s when I learned that lots of baseball players lie, cheat on their wives, drink to excess, pop amphetamines like Chiclets, have the overall moral turpitude of a creepy guy in a trench coat — and, in that pre-union era, were treated like chattel by short-sighted, cheapskate owners.

The book also was funny. Achingly funny. Stop-and-grab-your-sides funny. But there was a pathos underneath it, as Bouton outlined his struggles to maintain his career as a professional baseball player. He was a knuckleball-throwing reliever who, in the season documented in the book, bounced between the now-gone Seattle Pilots of the American League, a minor league club, and the Houston Astros. He kept a diary of his experience, which became the basis for the book.

When Ball Four came out, you would have thought Bouton was dealing drugs to toddlers based on the amount of outrage it generated. Old-school sportswriters, used to living cushy lives in exchange for not reporting on what players did off the field, looked like fools and acted like bullies in response (a trait shared to this day by the biggest hacks in the field, I’d note). A lot of players went completely ballistic as their trade secrets were exposed and their spouses started asking way too many questions.

And Ball Four became a huge best-seller. Kids like me lapped it up, and so did plenty of other people.

My friends and I all started quoting lines from Joe Shultz, the Pilots’ manager. Bouton portrayed him as a good-natured semi-dolt who motivated players by pointing out that, once the game was over, they could all pound some Budweisers in the clubhouse. “Hija, blondie. How’s the old tomato?” Schultz once asked a woman he spotted in the stands (or so Bouton claimed).

“Ball Four” was full of gutter talk like that, and pervy acts involving players and baseball groupies. A lot of this could make me a little embarrassed today, but I found it super-fascinating at the time because…well, tween boy.

For example, the fact that players loved staying in L-shaped hotel buildings for the viewing-into-other-rooms opportunities they provided was not something that had occurred to me. Comparing detailed thoughts about women in the stands — or the women they were with the night before — while burning time in the dugout was not the kind of game-only focus I thought my heroes experienced.

The book outlined practical jokes involving Icy Hot balm in jockstraps and talcum powder in hair dryers. Bouton claimed Whitey Ford (I think) once raffled off a ham in the clubhouse, but there was no ham and no winner. This was just one of the risks of a game of chance, Ford explained.

Post-Ball Four, Bouton became a pariah to many players, but a hero to many of us. He parlayed the experience into a post-baseball career as a sportscaster, writer, actor, investor and more. The phony sheen over baseball players — and the owners who abused them — was pulled away forever, to what I’d claim was the benefit of everyone. Sportswriters had to act like journalists instead of team employees.

The game, stripped of this phony nonsense, exploded in popularity. Players banded together and got paid. And a whole new genre of tell-all sports books (none as good as this one, but some nonetheless enjoyable) was spawned.

Bouton died earlier this week. He was 80. I think I’ll read Ball Four again if I can find a copy.