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The records that changed my life, from A (Joan Armatrading) to Z (Frank Zappa), and 58 more

Records can make an enduring impact, both as singular musical works and as gateways to new aural worlds.

The Beatles, Emmylou Harris, flamenco guitar giant Paco de Lucia and jazz sax great Wayne Shorter are also on our list

Can a record change your life?

Absolutely.

So can a single song, a concert, a festival, or a live TV or film performance, be it The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan” in 1964, Queen at “Live Aid” in 1985 or Santana, Jimi Hendrix and Sly & The Family Stone in the 1970 “Woodstock” documentary.

I know the power of records from personal experience. As a lifelong fan — and as a professional music critic since the mid-1980s — I have happily spent countless hours listening, absorbing, contemplating, discussing and writing about nearly every imaginable musical style.

I also know the power of records from interviews I have been fortunate enough to conduct with performers of nearly every imaginable style. Or, as former Tijuana guitarist Carlos Santana once told me: “After I heard a record by B.B. King playing on the radio, I knew I wasn’t ever going back to washing dishes at the diner I worked at in San Francisco!”

Citing the records that changed my life is easy. But narrowing that list to just 10 for this article has been a major challenge.

I could easily come up with a different daily list of equally worthy records every day for a month and still only scratch the surface. That would be the case even if I included several albums apiece by Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Kendrick Lamar, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, Fela Kuti, B.B. King, Ravi Shankar, the Rolling Stones, Cassandra Wilson, Tom Waits, Prince, Keith Jarrett, Gil Scott-Heron, Thelonious Monk, Rubén Blades, James Moody, Vijay Iyer, Public Enemy, Radiohead, Sun Ra, King Sunny Adé, Bjork, Henry Threadgill, Talking Heads, Randy Newman, Ella Fitzgerald King Crimson, Bonnie Raitt, Hermeto Pascoal, Roxy Music, the Ramones and numerous other favorites of mine.

The 10 albums I am writing about here were gateways for me, rather than final destinations. An analogy would be tributaries of music flowing into a river of sound that leads to an ocean of aural wonderment, deeper and more expansive than anyone could ever hope to chart.

Each of the 10 records, listed here in alphabetical order, struck a deep chord with me the first time I heard them and continue to do so now. They may not all have changed my life, literally speaking. But they changed how I listened to and thought about music — and, by extension — my perspectives about the world around me,

Which records changed your life? Email me at george.varga@sduniontribune.com, and a sampling of your responses will be compiled and published.

Joan Armatrading, “Joan Armatrading” (1976, A&M Records)

Born in the West Indies and raised in Birmingham, England, Joan Armatrading had so-so solo recordings under her belt before her self-titled third album established her as a captivating singer, songwriter and band leader. Like few others, then or now, she addressed matters of the heart, race, social standing and feminism with skill, nuance and flashes of sly humor.

Her singing at times suggested a beguiling cross between Joni Mitchell, Odetta and Nina Simone, by way of Diana Ross, circa “Lady Sings the Blues.” Armatrading could sound sweet or husky, assertive or vulnerable, playful or poignant. Her songs were powerful, even those delivered in a kind of a hush, such as “Save Me” and “Love and Affection,” which boasts one of my all-time favorite opening lines: I am not in love / But I’m open to persuasion.

Drawing from folk, rock, pop, country, soul, jazz and more, Armatrading created a welcoming if difdicult to classify blend. She matched it with smart, no-nonsense lyrics, including this sharp take-down of an especially unfaithful paramour: Tall in the saddle / One of these days you’re gonna have to dismount. She also showcased a gutsy acoustic guitar style that later inspired Ani DiFranco and Mary Chapin-Carpenter, among others. And Armatrading held her own leading a crack band that — on this album and the triumphant tour that followed — featured guitar ace Jerry Donahue and drum wiz Dave Mattacks.

My alternate choices: Etta James, “Rocks the House” (1964); Joni Mitchell, “Court and Spark” (1974); Richard & Linda Thompson, “Shoot Out the Lights” (1982); Cassandra Wilson, “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn” (1995); Lucy Dacus, “Historian” (2018)


The Beatles, “Revolver” (1966, EMI)

I was a fourth-grader in Frankfurt, Germany, when “Revolver” came out, so to say it sounded like nothing I’d heard before is a given. Ditto the fact that I did not start to appreciate what a game-changer the album was — for The Beatles and popular music — until I was in my mid-teens. “Revolver’s” 14 songs capture the band that had transformed the world only a few years before changing and blossoming anew.

With their creative muses at the fore and concert-touring days soon to be behind them, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr boldly used the recording studio as an instrument as never before. Their already legendary producer, George Martin, also scaled new heights. Witness his ingenious double string-quartet arrangement on “Eleanor Rigby,” the way he made Lennon’s singing sound so perfectly disembodied on the shape-shifting “Tomorrow Never Knows” and his deft touch helping Harrison fuse rock with Indian raga on “Love You To.”

The Beatles were even more ambitious on 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” But as a uniformly potent statement of creativity and maturity, “Revolver” remains the band’s crowning glory — and an album that helped me realize rock music was only limited by the imaginations of those who made it (and hose who listened to it).

My alternate choices: The Byrds, “Greatest Hits” (1967); Jimi Hendrix, “Electric Ladyland” (1968); The Rolling Stones, “Beggar’s Banquet” (1968); The Who, “Who’s Next” (1971); Radiohead, “Kid A” (2000)

Art Blakey, “Orgy in Rhythm, Volume 1" (1957, Blue Note)

Records can evoke a time and place, sometimes even before you hear them. Seven years after my parents and I had moved to Frankfurt , Germany, I bought “Orgy in Rhythm, Volume 1" by Art Blakey in December 1970 at Wallichs Music City in Hollywood while on vacation. I bought two other albums that same day at Wallichs — Spirit’s “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” and Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa’s “The Great Drum Battle” — both also favorites to this day.

As a 14-year-old budding music fanatic, I already had collected about 100 albums, which were conveniently priced at $2.50 in the U.S. military P.X. in Frankfurt (and not much more in nearby German stores). Of those albums, only two were jazz — a Mose Allison live session and “Spirit Feel” by the Roger Kellaway Trio, featuring Tom Scott. I’d grabbed both at a thrift shop, on a whim, for 25 cents each.

Who was Art Blakey? At 14, I didn’t have a clue about his greatness. But the large photo of him exuberantly drumming on the cover of “Orgy in Rhythm” was simply irresistible. Ditto the often explosive music on this galvanizing album. It featured Blakey with seven other drummers and percussionists, who spanned three generations, including the mighty Papa Jo Jones and Carlos “Patato” Valdes.

Their volcanic blend of crisscrossing jazz, Latin and African polyrhythms contained so much fire, finesse and joy that I was instantly hooked. I still am. And each time I was lucky enough to see Blakey with his ever-changing band of young lions, the Jazz Messengers, I was just as awed by his musicianship as I was at 14.

My alternate choices: Chick Corea & Gary Burton, “Crystal Silence” (1973); The New Tony Williams Lifetime, “Believe It” (1975); Jack DeJohnette, “Special Edition” (1979); Bob Moses, “When Elephants Dream of Music”; Antonio Sanchez, “Birdman — Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” (2014)

Black Uhuru, “Red” (1981, Mango)

It might seem like heresy to not have selected an album by Bob Marley & The Wailers, Jimmy Cliff or Toots and The Maytals (although two of the three are in my Alternate Choices below). Yet, while I continue to derive great pleasure listening to records by each of them, Black Uhuru’s “Red” stands out for several reasons.

Most notable is that the group’s front line of three singers teamed Jamaica’s Duckie Rose and Michael Simpson with South Carolina native Sandra “Puma” Jones. She had earned a earned a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University before joining Black Uhuru in 1978.

Her vocal blend with Rose and Simpson was striking. So was drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare — Jamaica’s top for-hire rhythm section — who had become full-time Black Uhuru members.

“Red” demonstrated that reggae could utilize state-of-the-art production techniques, including synthesized drums and computerized voice processors, without sacrificing any of the music’s earthy emotional essence. The result, on such stirring songs as “Youth Of Eglington,” “Utterance” and “Carbine,” saluted the rootsy traditions of reggae while pointing to new possibilities.

My alternate choices: Various Artists, “The Harder They Come” (1972); Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Catch a Fire” (1973), “Right Time,” The Mighty Diamonds (1983); Monty Alexander, “Yard Movement” (1996); Ernest Ranglin, “Below the Bassline” (1997)

Emmylou Harris, “Pieces of the Sky” (1975, Reprise)

Like many teenagers who dismissed country music in the late 1960s and early 1970s as aural hokum for rednecks, I soon began to eat much musical crow. Emmylou Harris was my first chef, so to speak, and remains a vital source of nourishment to this day.

My previous entry points were the excellent English country-rock band Heads, Hands & Feet (which featured future Harris band guitarist Albert Lee) and The Byrds’ landmark “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (which featured future Harris mentor and collaborator Gram Parsons). But it was her major label debut album, “Pieces of the Sky,” that sealed the deal and belatedly opened my ears to the sublime songwriting of Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, the Louvin Brothers and yet another Harris band mate, Rodney Crowell.

Blessed with a heavenly voice and rare emotional resonance, Harris — much like Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand — is an interpreter of songs, not the source of them. But she has written or co-written a few gems, including “Pieces of the Sky’s” standout “Boulder to Birmingham,” an aching homage to Parsons, who died in 1973 of a drug overdose. The rest of the album is a sonorous valentine to country-music and to the songs and artists Harris cherished. Thanks to her, I’ve been able to cherish them, too.

My alternate choices: Willie Nelson, “Red Headed Stranger” (1975); Joe Ely, “Joe Ely” (1977); The David Grisman Quintet, “The David Grisman Quintet” (1977); Rosie Flores, “Rosie Flores” (1987); Lucinda Williams, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (1998)

Lauryn Hill, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (1998, Ruffhouse/Columbia)

Lauryn Hill is not the only artist to peak with their first solo album. But it’s difficult to think of any other performer who reached such a stunning artistic peak, so early in their career, and never came close again. Regardless, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” stands as a towering work by Hill, who was barely 23 when it was released.

Having established herself as a member of the trio The Fugees, she made her maiden solo voyage an epic one. Rapping and singing with equal skill and passion, Hill drew from hip-hop, classic soul, reggae, 1950s doo-wop and more. Many of her songs on “Miseducation,” starting with “Lost Ones,” were fierce declarations of independence made by a singer-songwriter who was pregnant with her first child at the time.

Like few artists of her generation, Hill ingeniously mixed styles and eras of music to craft a synthesis that expanded the parameters of hip-hop with admirable flair. Wise beyond her years, she questioned fame and fortune even before she had really achieved them, as demonstrated by this telling couplet from “Superstar”: Now tell me your philosophy / On exactly what an artist should be / Should they be someone with prosperity? And no concept of reality?

That she still has not released a second studio album, 22 years later, is a huge disappointment. But if “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” is to be her only calling card, it remains a major achievement.

My alternate choices: “This is Madness,” The Last Poets (1971); Public Enemy, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (1988); Mos Def, “Black on Both Sides” (1998); Jaguar Wright, “Denials, Delusions and Decisions” (2001); Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015)

Los Lobos, “Kiko” (1992)

Los Lobos didn’t entirely re-invent itself with “Kiko.” But this wonderfully ambitious and expansive album sounds like nothing else that this still-vibrant band from East Los Angeles made, before or since, as the group explores new artistic terrain while retaining the rustic blues and rock vitality of its earlier outings.

Rich in texture and unexpected twists, “Kiko” takes on a cinematic air, rich in musical and lyrical imagery. There’s an almost Gothic quality to such songs as “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” while the skittering “Angels with Dirty Faces” sounds positively haunted.

The exuberant roots-rock and ranchera stylings that established Los Lobos as a force to reckon with are still here. But they have been reconfigured and expanded with elements of New Orleans street drumming, Cajun reels, clattering industrial-music percussive accents and a panoply of Latin and Afro-Caribbean idioms.

Together, these ingredients — and the care and precision with which they are mixed and matched — make “Kiko” sound as distinctive now as it did nearly 30 years ago.

My alternate choices: The Band, “Music from Big Pink” (1968); Patto, “Hold Your Fire” (1971); Terry Reid, “Seed of Memory” (1976); (1992); Wilco, “Sky Blue Sky” (2007); Yola, “Walk Through Fire” (2019)

Paco de Lucia, “Solo Quiero Caminar” (1987, Polygram)

Like many Americans, I had enjoyed hearing Spanish flamenco giant Paco de Lucia on “Friday Night in San Francisco,” the high-octane, triple acoustic-guitar live album he made in 1980 with John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola.

But what made me an unwavering devotee was “Solo Quiero Caminar,” de Lucia’s breathtakingly innovative 1981 studio album. He recorded it with his exemplary band, which featured his younger brother, Ramon, on second guitar, and older brother, Pepe, on vocals and the propulsive hand-clapping accompaniment known as palmas.

Combining masterful musicianship with impeccably crafted compositions, “Caminar” created an enduring template for the fusion of flamenco and jazz. Its use of electric bass, sax, flute and the box-shaped Peruvian drum known as a cajon was considered radical at the time. But de Lucia was rightfully soon hailed as a visionary and this album stands as one of the crowning glories for the six-string giant, who died in 2014.

My alternate choices: Camaròn de la Isla with Tomatito, “Paris 1987" (1999); El Cigala, “Entre Vareta Y Canasta” (2000); Chano Dominguez, “Flamenco Sketches” (2011); Rosalia, “El Mar Querer” (2018)

Wayne Shorter, featuring Milton Nascimento, “Native Dancer” (1975, Columbia)

I was already a Wayne Shorter fan before “Native Dancer,” thanks to his groundbreaking solo albums and exemplary playing in the bands of Art Blakey and Miles Davis. But “Native Dancer” introduced me to a broader scope of Brazilian styles than I knew existed, as well as to the stunningly beautiful singing and songwriting of Milton Nascimento, whose angelic voice is an instrument unto itself.

“Native Dancer” teamed Shorter, Nascimento and two former Davis band members — keyboardist Herbie Hancock and percussionist Airto Moreira — with some of Rio De Janiero’s leading instrumentalists and Van Morrison guitarist Jay Berliner. The chemistry between them was palpable as they expertly mixed styles from different countries and cultures into a tantalizing aural blend.

Together, they simultaneously demonstrated how forward-looking American jazz artists and their Brazilian music counterparts could create something fresh and distinctive, foreign and familiar. What resulted was of its time and — given how contemporary it still sounds 45 years later — well beyond it.

My alternate choices: Hermeto Pascoal, “Slave’s Mass” (1977); Egberto Gismonti, “Sanfona” (1981); Caetano Veloso, “Circulado Ao Vivo” (1991); Luciana Souza, “Speaking in Tongues” (2015); Sãn-Sao Trio, “Novos Caminhos” (2019)

Frank Zappa, “Hot Rats” (1969, Bizarre/Reprise)

Former San Diegan Frank Zappa had already released several albums with his genre-blurring band, The Mothers of Invention, prior to making “Hot Rats.” Today, 51 years later, it continues to be one of the most adroit and distinctive works by an artist whose music was rarely less than distinctive or adroit.

More than on any other album he had made up to that point, Zappa’s artistic imagination soared here, as he manipulated and re-configured everything his recording studio allowed him to manipulate, including tape speeds. These tools were used to elevate his music, which rose to new heights here.

Three of the six songs on “Hot Rats” lasted at least nine minutes apiece, but they sound crisp and focused. The swirling “Peaches en Regalia,” which is just over 3½ minutes, boasted more engaging ideas and sonic adventure than most other artists at the time managed on an entire side of an album.

Apart from the Captain Beefheart vocal showcase “Willie the Pimp” — which at times suggested Chicago blues great Howlin’ Wolf on LSD — all of the selections were entirely instrumental. The featured musicians, including French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and former San Diego drummer John Guerin, were jazz virtuosos whose instrumental command inspired Zappa to aim higher than ever before. Happily, he hit his target.

My alternate choices: Jethro Tull, “Stand Up” (1969); “Friend’s Friend’s Friend,” Audience (1970); Yes, “The Yes Album” (1971); Gentle Giant, “Acquiring the Taste” (1971); Happy the Man, “Crafty Hands” (1978)


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