If you are involved in the New Jersey music scene in any way, shape or form chances are you know Brian Erickson of the brilliant Princeton-based band The Paper Jets. If you are a musician, odds are that he has promoted your work. In addition to his role as guitarist/vocalist of the Jets and as a solo artist he co-hosts the popular, informative and entertaining The Great Albums Podcast with fellow musician Bill Lambusta (of which Alice and I guested on the still popular Licensed to Ill episode). He is a tireless promotor hosting shows in the region especially in Asbury Park and New Hope, PA. He is a television host of the relaunched One More With Brin Erickson which spotlights local talent. Last but not least he is an indispensable contributor to You Don’t Know Jersey. When one considers all Erickson does, the question springs to mind—does he sleep?
I approached Erickson last fall and told him when I was planning the 2018 articles of this series he was the person I wanted to kick the year off with. Somehow he found the time to take the challenge on.
Last year, as our editors-in-chief Alice and Ed Magdziak were completing our Q4 review at YDKJ’s Dubai headquarters, Ed finished his third Lobster tail and called the conference back to order. It was then that I was given my first assignment of the coming year: Submit my list of 10 Favorite Albums to him for an early 2018 publication. Knowing how long this assignment takes, I hopped on the next skiff to Palm Jumeirah and immediately got to work. This wouldn’t be a normal list, though. After all, how many more times would you like to read what an anonymous white man thinks of Pet Sounds? With that in mind, I decided instead of going with straight favorites, I’d do something more chronological; targeting albums that affected me at critical points in my life. And because I work here, I’m bending the rules just a little. I’m listing 11 instead of 10.
Sesame Street – The Best of Ernie
When I was a kid, this was the tape my parents would put on when we would go on long car rides. What continues to strike me about this album is how smartly-written the material is; as though the people writing it knew that adults would have to listen so they couldn’t make it too hokey-sounding. Songs like “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon,” or “Imagination” which place heavy emphasis on lyrical imagery and melody stayed stuck in my head long after I outgrew Sesame Street. And it wasn’t until recently that I finally rediscovered this album. Listening now, it feels like opening up a room in your home that you forgot existed. Sure some things don’t look or feel as they had, but everything’s exactly how you left it. And there’s something comforting in that.
Michael Jackson – Bad
While my recollections from the year 1988 play more like a photo album full of random moments, one very distinct memory I have is when my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Austin, invited a student from a neighboring classroom in to lip-synch and dance to the new Michael Jackson single. This is the first time I remember hearing MJ and my mind was blown. The song’s forward motion and the steady build of Quincy Jones’ production were unlike anything my five year old brain had yet experienced. Once I realized my friend Chris (who lived down the block from me) had the whole damn album (on CD, no less…he was FOUR years old!) and I got a hold of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Leave Me Alone,” and “Speed Demon,” I was hooked!
Julie Andrews & Dick Van Dyke – Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins Original Cast Soundtrack
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up. My parents would drop me off there when they would have to travel for my dad’s job or for a couple days of peace and quiet. They loved me a lot but I was often a handful – equal parts rambunctious and unpredictable.
My grandfather knew how to calm me down. We would read old children’s books like “Ghost in a Four Room Apartment” and listen to Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, and the Mary Poppins Soundtrack. Of course I knew the film inside and out, and the music just became another part of the experience, even when removed from its vivid visual counterpart. Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke began cementing my eventual love of the Broadway/cabaret-style of songwriting. Peter Tomlinson’s distinctly British style of singing was wonderful and Ed Wynn’s take on “I Love to Laugh,” still makes me smile!
A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders
Remember my friend Chris who had that CD copy of Bad? Well he also Midnight Marauders. I’d go over to his house to play basketball and he had a boom box that wedged perfectly into his open, driveway-facing bedroom window. “Award Tour” blared from the speakers at a volume that made me believe the entire neighborhood could hear it. The interweaving wordplay between Tip and Phife impressed itself upon me immediately. All the way up to their masterpiece comeback/farewell record in 2016, I’ve remained an avid, passionate fan of theirs. And while I could have easily slipped Illmatic, Paid In Full, Ready to Die or any one of the dozens of classic rap albums Chris turned me on to into the list, Midnight Marauders – with more hits than the Braves and the Yankees – was the first, remains arguably the best, and gets the eternal nod.
The Beatles – Abbey Road
When I was eight, my Cub Scout pack took a trip to the Vanderbilt Planetarium in Centerport, NY for a laser light exhibit. We unwrapped our astronaut ice cream and got ready for the two hour show. The finale is where I heard it: the “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” medley that caps off The Beatles’ greatest album. The laser show depicted a Little Nemo-type boy who goes to sleep only to have his bed float out the window and carry him on a fantastic adventure. That was it for me. I can still recall the moment vividly, as if you could somehow make The Beatles even better.
But the real treat came the next morning when I woke up and came downstairs for breakfast. My dad had queued up Abbey Road and when the medley came on, my eyes lit up! I couldn’t believe that such perfection was not only within reach but living in the same house as me! It helped cement Paul McCartney as a lifetime favorite and The Beatles as a rightful obsession. Sitting right in the center of it all is Abbey Road in all its adventurous, whimsical, wide-eyed glory!
Carole King – Tapestry
I rode my bike endlessly as a kid. It was the only way to navigate the Long Island suburbs with any type of efficiency. I had my routes – the trails that ran through the woods behind my neighborhood, the local shopping center, the book store, the park, the middle school, etc.
One particularly chilly late fall afternoon, I was coming back from a bike ride out of breath, thirsty, and rosy-cheeked. I was 12, maybe 13. As I walked into my parents’ house, I was hit with that swell of heat you experience after coming in from the cold. I set my things down and went into the den where my parents sat quietly. My dad was in his easy chair and my mom on the couch. “So Far Away” was playing and they just kept…sitting there. They weren’t upset; quite the contrary. They were relaxed and completely enjoying one another’s company as the rest of Tapestry passively played out. Maybe they were thinking about how things were before my sister and I came along, reliving memories through a quiet (and ultimately passing) moment to themselves. But whatever the case was, it felt comfortable; easy; like ‘home’ should feel. Tapestry has felt like home ever since.
Ben Folds Five – Whatever and Ever, Amen
As a kid, I wasn’t much of a music-listener. The radio did fine, though it wasn’t giving me what I was hoping for. Up to this point, the music I enjoyed as a kid was exactly that, kids music! The Beatles and Carole King were my parents’ music, and in the midst of his first scandal, Michael Jackson wasn’t welcome in the house. That’s when I discovered Ben Folds Five.
I was watching the premiere of MTV 2 when Drew Carey introduced the video for “One Angry Dwarf” by Ben Folds Five. What strange, wonderful sound was coming out of my family’s television? I was stunned that music like that even existed let alone was so accessible. I wrote down the band name, the album title, and the song. I’m glad I did because “One Angry Dwarf” didn’t exactly rule the airwaves in the summer of 1997. I didn’t work so I had no money but I needed this record in the worst way. So I entered an art contest where the prize was a $50.00 gift certificate to The Wall, and my picture in the Suffolk County edition of the Our Town circular. I was a terrible artist in almost every way – an unsteady hand, poor sense of depth perception, and unimaginative eyes. But I put everything I had into the contest, mailed my submission in, and waited.
The same day I got the gift certificate (which came in the form of a large gold coin), I took off on my bike and rode 9 miles to the mall. The round trip excursion took forever but when I got home and tore off the cellophane wrapper, that CD lived in my disc man for the next year. I listened to it every day. I made cassette backup copies. I left one in my locker in school, I kept one in my backpack. I carried the CD around with me just to keep it close. What if the house caught fire?
Every word, every turn of phrase, every harmony…it felt like I knew it as I was hearing it for the first time! Ben, Robert, and Darren got me. They understood what it was like! And I repaid them by endlessly spinning their album. Music ceased being a fleeting encounter. With Whatever and Ever, Amen, music became love.
Herbie Hancock – Cantaloupe Island
When I got older – early high school aged – I started riding my bike a little further away. My classmate, Mike Gamba, started turning me on to jazz music and we’d often ride together to Borders Books and pick up jazz albums on CD.
To some, jazz as a genre is fussy, conservative, and a little too high-brow. I’d argue against all three of those assertions all day long. Jazz is loose and free, and served as a unique vehicle for an otherwise entirely repressed group of people. When talking about jazz, you’ve got to get through Miles, Bird, Dizzy, Trane, Ella and Billie, Louis, Sir Duke, Cannonball, and Nina, before you even think bringing up the likes of Dave Brubeck, Glen Miller, or Chet Baker if you follow me. Herbie Hancock is another one of those big names and his album Cantaloupe Island was my first jazz record.
Mike picked it out for me; I didn’t know where to start. At the time, there was a jazz dance group called Us 3 and their song “Flip Fantasia” was a hit. Cantaloupe Island’s title track was sampled heavily. Since I liked the former, Mike thought, I’d be into the latter. Jazz was an adventure from that point forward. Lefts when you should be making rights. Music where there should be words. A winding unpaved path when there should have been a smooth straightaway. As my friends were listening to Rage Against the Machine, Bush, and Silverchair, I was listening to Kind of Blue, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and Time Out. Jazz was my punk rock. I nearly stopped listening to rock music for five years.
Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson Presents: SMILE
While most of the world waited nearly 40 years to hear SMiLE, I only had to wait one. The Beach Boys have been with me throughout my entire life, but I didn’t learn of SMiLE, the lost, unfinished follow up to Pet Sounds until around 2003. Wilson completed and began touring SMiLE across the world in early 2004. Talk about spoiled!
The Beach Boys are the through-line for my entire life and SMiLE connects all the disparate pieces. From the whimsy of Mary Poppins to the harmonic complexities of jazz music, Carole King’s taught songwriting to The Beatles’ expert production, it’s SMiLE, not Pet Sounds that I reach for when I need that extra boost of inspiration; when I need to be convinced of what exactly it is a human being is capable of. Brian Wilson overcame decades of mental illness, medical malpractice, physical and emotional abuse. He tapped into his 20th century self to help create still one of the 21st century’s most ambitious albums. That he was willing to share it with the rest of us makes us so, so lucky.
Harry Nilsson – Harry Nilsson Sings
I had suffered through a breakup so heart-wrenching it took me years to fully get over it. The relationship was imperfect from the start but at its best, it was challenging and rewarding and the way it moved continues to offer me perspective nearly a decade after it ended. But in the moment, it was the kind of breakup that made you question everything you did up to that point, even the things that were entirely unrelated.
Somewhere in the middle of that whole mess, I found Nilsson Sings Newman and while the songs “So Long Dad,” “I’ll Be Home,” and “Snow” are just as sad as I was feeling at the time, Harry Nilsson’s hearth-warm voice and Randy Newman’s simple piano arrangements offered me a center of gravity for the first time in a while. Nilsson sang lines like “Time to face the dawn and gray / Of another lonely day / It’s so hard / Living without you” like they were his own. I received them as though he were singing to me. Nilsson Sings Newman helped me climb out of it and start the rebuild.
Jimmy Buffett – Songs You Know by Heart
Toward the end of my father’s life, as he descended deeper and deeper into the throes of addiction, he and my mother separated. Couldn’t have that under the same roof anymore. I remember getting a call from Mom at 9 a.m. on Sunday March 25, 2007, maybe only two months after he had moved out. She had gone to check on him. He was dead.
That week, we cleaned out his apartment. He didn’t have much. Some free weights, a television, a couple books and golfing magazines and an unopened copy of Songs You Know by Heart. He had long owned this album but had spun it so much he must have scratched it beyond playability. When he was healthier, he would sit out back by the pool with a cigar while “A Pirate Looks at 40” hung in the air just above his head. My father was intelligent in ways I never will be. He was articulate, charming, and funny. The 80s were his heyday – when his kids came of age and his marriage to my mother really hit its stride. He was a proud Regan voter; a rare business man who cared about – and took care of – his employees. His music was simple. He liked rock and roll and preferred Jagger over Dylan. So it makes perfect sense that in those final days he’d go seek out something to remind him of a better time in his life; something that brought him to a place of peace and comfort.
The unopened Songs You Know by Heart now sits on my shelf. But that doesn’t mean Dad never found that place of peace and comfort. I’ll bet he’s there right now.
Sam Cooke – Night Beat
Nina Simone – Pastel Blues
Sarah Vaughn – The Divine Sarah Vaughn
Otis Redding – The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads
Sly & the Family Stone – Stand!
Miles Davis – A Tribute to Jack Johnson
The Walkmen – You & Me
Laurie Anderson – Big Science
David Bowie – Hunky Dory
Ryan Adams – Love is Hell
Header photo: Matt Smith
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