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My Top 20 Albums 

I just found this post from 2009. It still pretty much works, and might give you an idea of where I'm coming from.

My rules:  

- I won't list a "Greatest Hits" record simply because I love the artist but no actual album really killed me. For this reason, Elvis, among others, is missing from this list. 

- I will list a Greatest Hits record if it genuinely knocked me out (typically it was my first exposure to the artist - Leonard Cohen and Hank Williams make it this way.) 

- For perverse reasons, I list no more than one record by any artist. I can tell you that Dylan and The Stones would be inordinately represented, but I like to spread the love. 

- It's in a weird kind of order, having to do with how much a record has impacted me, but also when. 

- These are from many periods of my life. Some I haven't listened to in years, but they were important to me at the time.

Note that I only encountered 3 or 4 of these at the time they came out. I've always spent more energy digging into the past than scouring the present.


1. Highway 61 Revisited - The Bob. I am pretty sure the first time I heard this was 1981, when I checked it out of the Boulder Public Library. I've never gotten over it. 

2. Exile on Main St. - The Rolling Stones. I could list any record the Stones made between '68 and '72, but this one is the trashiest. 

3. Remain In Light - Talking Heads. I've been rootsy for quite awhile now, but when I was 21 and everything was new and I was discovering Art, this record blew my head off. [This is one I heard when it came out.]

4. Led Zeppelin II. The summer I turned 15, I was alone in the house one day, and on a whim I put on this record that my sister's boyfriend had left, and turned it up louder than I had ever turned up a record before. Everything changed. (For one thing, I never listened to Elton John again.) 

5. Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd. Are you kidding? I was an American kid that grew up in the 1970s. "The ultimate headphone album" was a huge cultural touchstone. 

6. Decade - Neil Young. It was hard to know which Neil Young record to pick, but this was unquestionably the formative one: it's the first one I encountered, when I first went away to college, and if you listen to my music now, you know I've never gotten over it. [Heard this one pretty much when it came out.]

7. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars - David Bowie. Bowie, too, was huge for me in my youth. I devoured many of his records, but this one is a definitive rock masterpiece. 

8. Smithsonion Collection of Classical Jazz - Various. I have no idea if that's even the name of it, but one Christmas vacation in college, sick of the sorry rock music that was being purveyed at the time, I made three or four cassettes from this multi-disc set I found at my dad's house. My favorite one was from the 40s and 50s with Duke, Lester, Diz and Bird all over it. It got me through the early 80s. 

9. Hank Williams Greatest Hits. In 1985, in Boulder, I bought this record at a garage sale for a quarter. I put it on later that day, just when I was starting to get off on mushrooms (kids: drugs are bad!), and "Ramblin' Man" came on, and my heart broke. 

10. Greatest Hits - Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five. Not even really sure if that's the name of it. In my mid-20s I went on a long journey to reconcile my appreciation for jazz with my bred-in-the-bone identification with rock. I started learning about the history of American music. I searched with my ears for a missing link between Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry. Much to my surprise, I found it. 

11. Best of Leonard Cohen. I knew Bob Dylan wrote great songs. I didn't know anyone else wrote songs that were just as great. Until I found this. 

12. Rain Dogs - Tom Waits. When this record came out Tom was on a cusp: he had been one of the great contemporary songwriters, and he was turning into one of the great contemporary sonic artists. This was my first serious encounter with him, and it suited me to a T. [Heard this when it came out.]

13. Abbey Road - The Beatles. Like you, the Beatles are simply in my blood. There was a brief period when I was a kid that the beginnings of our (my sisters and my) album-buying overlapped with the end of the Beatles' album-making. Maybe we got Abbey Road after they broke up, but not long after, and we played the grooves off it during my 11th summer. [Heard this not long after came out.]

14. Darkness on the Edge of Town - Bruce Springsteen. I have had a long and complicated relationship with Bruce, although he doesn't know it. Although I liked the songs I heard from Darkness when it came out, I already had a problem with the whole Boss thing, so I didn't own this record until the early 90s. And then I went nuts for it. It's one of the most passionate records I know of. 

15. Songs In the Key of Life - Stevie Wonder. I have and love everything he did in the first half of the 70s, which, apart from the hits I heard on the radio, I did not discover until the first half of the 90s. 

16. Exodus - Bob Marley. In high school, I lived in northern New York, and the best radio station was CHOM, from Montreal. Every Tuesday night they would play a new album in its entirety, and I would listen on my little clock radio in my little room. I heard My Aim Is True this way, and Exodus. It was very, very cool. [But I didn't buy it until many years later.]

17. Atlantic Rhythm'n'Blues, 1947-1974. Cheap as I am, you don't see many fat box sets in my collection. I guess I was feeling rich one day, and I'm damn glad of it. It's all cream, but the ones I go back to the most are the 60s ones, particularly Stax, Stax, Stax. And Ray. 

18. El Corazon - Steve Earle. In the mid-90s I did a Columbia House thing and got 9 CDs for a penny or something. I figured I could take a flyer on a couple, and I hit the jackpot on this one. Rock, twang, and great songs. [Got it when it came out.]

19. The Band ("The Brown Album") - Inevitably, in my late 20s, I came to these guys, and I still haven't left. With Bob, the Stones, and Neil, The Band has been one of my chief musical influences for a long time now. 

20. Moondance - Van Morrison. It was between this and Al Green's I'm Still In Love With You, and frankly, whatever. Although I could would be content to never hear the title track again, Moondance is a nearly perfect album from "the Irish Stevie Wonder". Can I please write a song like "And It Stoned Me"? Can I at least write a song that has fishing poles in it?

Johnny Harper, Pt. 1 

Johnny Harper makes music for human liberation.

I'm just gonna let that stand for a minute while I give you some backstory.

Finding Sanctuary

In 1988, I was lost. (Again.) I'd landed in the Bay Area a couple years earlier, but hadn't gotten a foothold. I was adrift and alone. All I had really figured out by then was that I was, in fact, however tenuously, connected to something worthwhile in the world: American music. I'd finally fit together enough of the pieces to realize that the music that moved me had come from a rich tradition, and that my compulsion to write songs, no matter how infrequently or obscurely, legitimately connected me to that tradition.

So this much I knew. And somehow, lost as I was, I came up with the conclusion that, since this was the one true thing I knew in life, I ought to somehow pursue it, follow it, strengthen that connection. Maybe by playing my songs in front of other people.

But I had two problems: I was a shitty guitar player, and I was a shitty singer. Setting aside the second problem, I decided to take guitar lessons. So I opened up to the back of the East Bay Express, looked through the classifieds for guitar lessons, and picked one that sounded good. "Unique instruction method focused on what you want to learn."

The voice on the other end of the line was impressive. Deep and resonant.

The man who answered the door of the little house in East Oakland was impressive. Tall, dressed in a black shirt, black jeans, black shoes, with a big, square head and a shaggy mane of gray hair.

But Johnny was warm and welcoming, with intelligent eyes, an amused smile, and a down-home accent, as he let me into the room that would become like a sanctuary to me: his living room, and studio, with a couple guitars hanging on the walls, a baby grand (his live-in girlfriend, Jennifer Jolly, was a piano player), and shelves full of books about music. In the middle were two simple chairs with a little table between them. That was where the teaching took place.

The Teaching and The Teacher

That first day, Johnny asked me where I was coming from and I had figured out enough to point to Hank Williams and Robert Johnson as, I suppose, my ancestors of choice. And we pretty quickly turned up Dylan. From there, as the months went on, my visits to the sanctuary included the teachings of Bob (Dylan), Robbie (Robertson), and Robert (Johnson), as well as Hank, Chuck, Keith, Bruce, John & Paul, and Van.

(Johnny turned me around on Bruce, whom I'd rejected on the grounds of ubiquity. He also, significantly, hipped me to The Band, who'd mostly flown under my radar, having broken up just as I was getting into rock as a teen.)

Johnny didn't just teach me folk, rock, country, and blues guitar styles, and he didn't just teach me history. He also taught me songwriting. He urged me to bring my songs in, so I did, shaking as I sang them, shittily. But he listened - he listened! He really, deeply, listened to my songs, which right there was worth gold.

And then he picked them apart. I was not expecting this. He would say, "Yeah, this is good, but you've got this line right here, and it's kind of bullshit." And I would be, like, "What? The song's done." And I'd defend the line, and explain myself, and then finally admit that it was kind of bullshit and I knew it.

So he'd send me away to rewrite it, which sucked, because I had already written it once. But shortly before the next lesson I would sit down and make myself rewrite it, and it was better. Every time.

Johnny would get really picky, too - not just a line, but a word. Hey, nobody's gonna notice if one word is a little off, right? But Johnny Harper taught me the most important thing about making a song, or making anything: you create an overall impression through an accumulation of details. So get the details right.

And if they're not right the first time, rewrite. And if they're still not right, rewrite.

Stay tuned for Pt. 2, where I'll talk more about Johnny's music, his production of my 1999 CD, American Stray, and more...

Order a copy of Johnny's new CD, Light of a New Day, directly from Johnny - and tell him Phillips sentcha! $15 (including shipping).  Send your check or money order to Johnny Harper, 16051 Marcella St., San Leandro CA 94578

Tom Petty: A Songwriter's Perspective 

Even though Tom Petty was right in my wheelhouse - that wheelhouse being roughly bounded by Dylan, Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Steve Earle - he was never a major influence on me. I sometimes find myself consciously trying to write "in the style of ___" (I assume every songwriter does that). I do recall trying to write one in the style of Petty, but I gave that up a long time ago.

The reason is simple: what Tom Petty did as a songwriter, you can't learn.

He had an otherworldly knack for turning out songs that were instant classics. Ear-grabbers from the first note, with fist-in-the-air choruses. Three minute nuggets of rock perfection.

I'll give you the name, and I guarantee your mind will sing along:



"American Girl" 

"Learning to Fly"

"Don't Do Me Like That"

"Free Fallin'"

I could keep going. For a long time.

What other rock songwriter did this? John Fogerty, for a few short years. Lennon and McCartney, I suppose. Buddy Holly? It starts getting pretty thin up in those altitudes.

Arlo Guthrie said, “Songwriting is like fishing in a stream; you put in your line and hope you catch something.” There's a lot of craft to songwriting, but Arlo's talking about the inspiration, the part that comes before the craft. The original idea, that thing that pops into your head and makes you go, "Hey, now, that could get turned into something people want to hear!"

You sure as hell did not want to be fishing downstream from Tom Petty. He caught the juiciest ones, and served them up done to perfection.