soundtrack of my life

I saw this meme going around social media lately and it looked like a nice subject to ruminate on and reminisce over, but I’m not feeling posting on Facebook much anymore, so I decided to do one big post here. I know I’m tweaking the rules a little bit: more than 10 albums, these stretch before and after my teen years, and of course I’m offering a little explanation. But who cares! It’s been a fun, if challenging, activity!

Stevie Wonder, Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I (1982)
My parents have this thing where they “assigned” us kids songs when we were born. When I was born, they “gave” me Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” so it’s “my song.” (Aww.) It originally appeared on Songs in the Key of Life from 1976, but I still get warm family-love fuzzies when I hear this song and this compilation from 1982 is the album I remember my parents playing all the time when I was a kid. Plus, I just got a new bass so I’ve been having a lot of fun learning bass lines off this album lately.

Stray Cats, Built for Speed (1982)
One of the first vinyl records I “borrowed” (read: took) from my dad’s extensive record collection. As a young teenager and new guitarist I learned Brian Setzer’s guitar parts from the album top to bottom, using the vinyl!! Kids these days will never know.

Sir Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Amadeus (Original Soundtrack Recording) (1984)
Whenever I stayed home sick from school as a kid, Amadeus was my go-to movie. I had this album on vinyl too, and when I was a budding composer in high school I drew a lot of inspiration from the movie and the soundtrack. Maybe basic, but what can I say, I’m pretty sure it was a catalyst for me to start composing.

Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (1993)
This was legit on repeat for pretty much the entirety of my teen years. It’s another album from which I learned all the guitar parts (almost… I couldn’t achieve Corgan’s psychedelic soloing and didn’t have all the gear anyway). Beyond Siamese Dream being one of the most quintessential albums of the 90s and no doubt influential for many people, I also latched on to this one because its producer, Butch Vig, was one of my idols at the time. He embodied my first dream “career:” musician, record producer, studio owner. Bonus: Vig’s from Wisconsin and his iconic Smart Studios was just a couple blocks away from my house where I grew up.

Weezer, Pinkerton (1996)
Ah Pinkerton, the nostalgia runs deep despite the problematic sentiments. I still love it, so what. This is another album I had on repeat throughout high school, and again I learned all the guitar parts. Not to mention it was on the Pinkerton tour when my epic and notorious “Weezer Tour Bus Incident” took place. In eighth grade, I hung out with the band on its tour bus before its January 1997 show at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, during which guitarist Brian Bell dedicated “In the Garage” to me. My parents were not pleased with me!

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Prelude to a Kiss: The Duke Ellington Album (1996)
I was just starting to listen to and learn about jazz in ninth grade, and this is one of the first (if not the first) jazz records I ever bought. I remember really loving the saxophone parts, only to realize years later that it was Bobby Watson playing, whom I met when I moved to Kansas City for college. He was on faculty at my school, and it’s an honor to call him a friend and former colleague! Serendipity.

Phat Phunktion, Here We Go! (1999)
Phat Phunktion is a local Madison group that my high school band teacher knew from Summer Music Clinic (I participated one summer as a jazz guitarist). My teacher invited the band to play a gig at my high school when I was a junior. I don’t remember if it was for a fundraiser or just for fun, but I was very involved in the promotion of the show. I sold tickets at lunch for weeks and interviewed them for the school paper. This may have sparked my interest in writing about music, which was one of my side hustles after college in Kansas City. Besides that, Phat was my introduction to funk music (at least of which I was cognizant, if you don’t count my folks’ excellent collection of 70s funk played when I was little) and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Grant Green, Born to Be Blue (1962)
In high school I was pretty serious about jazz guitar—I took lessons from a respected local veteran of the Madison and Milwaukee jazz scenes, I was in the big band at school, I had my own jazz combo for fun, and I wrote a few jazz charts (yes they’re recorded). I listened to A LOT of jazz guitar recordings. Obsessed. It was very hard to narrow this down, between Les Paul and Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell and Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt and Freddie Green and Tal Farlow and and and… But I decided ultimately on Grant Green’s Born to Be Blue because it’s just a great album and I love the version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” on it.

Ani DiFranco, Little Plastic Castle (1998)
Here’s where the boys come in. My high school sweetheart dumped me around sophomore/junior year—my first love, my first heartbreak—and this new Ani DiFranco album affected me on several levels. Yes there are songs mired in angst which was perfect for me at the time, but also I loved her unabashedly introspective lyrics and killer guitar playing. Ultimately this isn’t my favorite album of Ani’s, but after that devastating breakup, this one helped me feel like myself again.

Charlie Hunter Quartet, Natty Dread (1997)
And here’s the one that reminds me of my college sweetheart. He introduced me to this album, and Charlie Hunter, and I love him for it. Charlie Hunter arranged Bob Marley’s 1974 Natty Dread track-for-track as a soul jazz album, and it is executed perfectly. I adore this version of “No Woman No Cry.” Nothing but good feelings when I listen to this record, still in semi-regular rotation for me.

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators, World on Fire (2014)
My husband asked me to tack this onto an Amazon order I was making one time in 2015, and when it arrived he happened to be away on a summer residency. So I decided to give it a listen and basically it was the only thing I listened to for the entire summer. When he got home I had all the lyrics memorized. There were some depressing life things that happened in 2015, and World on Fire was a great emotional outlet for some of my bottled-up feelings.

Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)
2016 and 2017. What can I say. So much happened, so much didn’t. Excitements, difficulties, adventures, terribleness, boring times, discoveries, stresses, identity examinations. Lemonade got me through some shit.


I have innumerable honorable mentions. For jazz, it was nearly impossible to pick out just one album from a guitarist—I also drew much inspiration from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone in high school when I was into jazz. I also went through an intense Buddy Holly phase. When I was a kid, music was always playing in our house, from soul and Motown to Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead to Carole King and Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson to Tom Waits and more. We’d listen to rock n’ roll on Saturday mornings and classical music on Sunday mornings—it’s tradition. Switching from guitar to bass in college was life transforming for me, that could be a whole post all to itself. And of course now I have tons of musician friends I love to support, and my music world has opened up immeasurably as an adult. This has been so much fun to think on! What are some important albums that have been the soundtrack to your life?

favorite albums of 2017

2017 was not a great year. Even though I had some good times, overall it was tough, for myriad reasons that this post is not about. Music, however, is always there for us, something we can always count on to soothe, evoke, and inspire in good and bad times. I was nervous about being in Singapore without my turntable and losing my interest in seeking out new music but luckily that didn’t happen. I know a few of these albums were released in late 2016, but I listened to them a lot this year and it’s my list! It was hard selecting favorite tracks, which can and do change all the time, but I liked challenging myself to choose for the purpose of this list. Here are my favorite albums released (mostly) in 2017, in order by release date:

***Links on album titles take you to the full album stream on Youtube, Bandcamp, or Soundcloud. All these links go to videos or posts uploaded by the artist or their record label. If you like it, buy it! 🙂

Soul Jazz Fridays … Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7
Funky as shit, son. Reminiscent of old-school 1960s–70s soul; it really transports you to that musical era thanks to Hazelton’s phenomenal jazz organ playing and his stellar crew. Bonus: Kansas City! Listening to this makes me feel like I’m at the Green Lady. I really wish I had this on vinyl. Favorite track: “Theme for Theo

• Darkness and Light … John Legend
Smooth and groovy as usual. Legend’s not necessarily the most adventuresome artist, but I’ve been hooked since Get Lifted and his music almost never lets me down. Favorite tracks: “Love Me Now, “Surefire

Run the Jewels 3 … Run the Jewels
RTJ’s third album straddles a line between rage and humor, with commentary on politics, somewhat archaic pop references, and sex jokes. That seems like it wouldn’t work, but Killer Mike and El-P play off each other lyrically so well and the hooks are so memorable that it weirdly does. Great guest spots by Zack de la Rocha and Kamasi Washington. Favorite track: “Down

Fin … Syd
A simultaneously cool and hot, sensual neosoul debut dripping with pleasure and confidence. Syd’s songs here convey the affections of one woman for another, and it’s awesome. Favorite track: “Smile More,” “Got Her Own

Drunk … Thundercat
The whole thing is a genre-defying, idiosyncratic masterpiece. I’m pretty convinced Thundercat is from another planet—this technicolor music seems to exist on another plane and follow zero rules, and I love it. DYING to see him perform live. Favorite tracks: “Uh Oh, “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)

The Mood … Maurice Brown
I found this album randomly on Youtube and kept coming back to it for weeks, finally bought it, and discovered my friend Solomon is the bassist! Brown’s album is a seamless fusion of jazz, blues, and hip hop with impeccable melodic phrasing throughout memorable, soulful tunes. I love the guest appearance by Talib Kweli. Favorite track: “On My Way Home

• DAMN.Kendrick Lamar
Despite declaring “I’m not a politician, I’m not ’bout religion” (“Yah”), this is deeply political, theological, and intimate. It’s scathing critique of conservative news media and racism in America; philosophical and personal; contradictory, conflicted, and complex. The double-play concept is genius. Favorite tracks: “FEEL.,” “LUST.,” “LOVE.,” “FEAR.”

Made in America … Bobby Watson
This makes me feel like I’m home in Kansas City. I love the theme of paying tribute to notable black Americans from history, some well known and some obscure. You know it’ll be good, too, when he collaborates with Curtis Lundy, Lewis Nash, and Stephen Scott. Bobby’s such a gifted composer, and every time I listen to his solos I hear something new. I feel privileged to count Bobby as a friend! Favorite tracks: “The G.O.A.T. (for Sammy Davis, Jr.),” “The Entrepreneur (for Madam C.J. Walker),” “The Real Lone Ranger (for Bass Reeves)”

Voyager … Moonchild
Dreamy, laid-back neosoul in the vein of Sade and even Stevie Wonder. Maybe not the most original music out there or here on my list, but I still played this album a lot when I needed to chill out. Favorite track: “Cure

Live at High Noon … Phat Phunktion
Another great live album on my list! I love all these classic Phat tunes. Live albums can be tricky, but this one manages to make you feel like you were there at the show. It brings up great memories from back home in Madison when I listen to it. Seeing them play live again last month during my visit home was a major highlight of the trip. Favorite tracks: “Untitled (Weekend Special), “Miss Madison

• Binary … Ani DiFranco
Ani’s music is always wise, inspiring, and on point. I’ve enjoyed her more mellow approach to sharing her political and humanitarian messaging in her music the last several years, and this album is no exception. Her signature funk-soul-folk style is here serving as foundation for topics like reproductive rights, nonviolence, and empathy. Maceo Parker and Justin Vernon have welcome supporting cameos. Favorite track: “Play God

Ctrl … SZA
SEXY AF, holy shit. Love and sex and relationships are amazing and messy and complicated. So is feeling like an adult (or not) and sexual freedom and dating in the modern age. Expectations vs. perceptions. Damn. This is a stunning album. Favorite tracks: “Love Galore, “The Weekend,” “Broken Clocks

The Nashville Sound … Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Thanks to Isbell’s deft songwriting on relatable subjects that are both introspective and turn a critical eye on society, this is just the kind of Americana/country rock that hits me right in the feels. I need a whiskey and a good cry after a couple of these songs. Favorite tracks: “Tupelo,” “If We Were Vampires

• 4:44 … Jay-Z
Jay-Z’s response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade (my #1 favorite album from 2016) is perfection and perfectly complementary. His humility and maturity here are revelations, not to mention his sharp commentary on our current sociopolitical and cultural realities. Favorite tracks: “Kill Jay Z,” “The Story of O.J.,” “Family Feud

Royal Mint … The Cash Box Kings
What can I say, I’m a sucker for my hometown bands. The original tunes here are especially good and timely, even cheeky at times. Oscar Wilson (vocals) and Joe Nosek (harp and vocals) are a dynamic pair, backed by several excellent local musicians from Madison and Chicago, including Joel Paterson, Al Falaschi, Alex Hall, Mark Haines, and Mel Ford, among others. Favorite tracks: “Build That Wall,” “Blues for Chi-Raq

• Southern Blood … Gregg Allman
I cried the first time I heard “My Only True Friend,” a meditation on life on the road and mortality written from the perspective of Allman’s late brother, Duane. This isn’t all about death, however. There are several covers due to Gregg’s health, but they’re selected in a way that are meaningful and reflective of his life and experiences. What a poignant, soulful final album for his fans and the world. RIP to a true master. Favorite track: “My Only True Friend

• Masseduction … St. Vincent
Hot hot hot HOT. Her guitar work is not as prominent here as usual—more textural than lead—but the album is full of bold, forward, and personal lyrics on top of awesome, catchy beats. This was solidly on repeat for a long time right after I got it. Favorite tracks: “Hang On Me,” “Masseduction,” “Los Ageless

Soul of a Woman … Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
I was in love with Sharon Jones’s music the moment I first heard it. Vintage-sounding soul at its finest thanks to Sharon’s singular voice, which retains its strength and personality on Soul of a Woman despite her cancer treatments during recording. I feel so fortunate to have seen her perform in Kansas City in 2016. I still can’t believe this is her final album. Rest in power, Queen. Favorite tracks: “Matter of Time,” “Pass Me By,” “Call On God

If All I Was Was Black … Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples is angry about the political unrest and racial climate in our country right now, but her delivery of these songs (by Jeff Tweedy) is patient, compassionate, dignified, and even hopeful. Favorite tracks: “If All I Was Was Black,” “We Go High

Hi-Fi Christmas Guitar … Joel Paterson
I can’t believe I have a holiday album on here. Joel is magical and turns everything he’s involved with to gold. His meticulousness in overdubbing so many flawless guitar parts on each track is staggering to me. Super fresh take on old classics. Favorite tracks: “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Christmas Time is Here”

Honorable Mentions from 2017 (alpha by artist):
Pikes 244–273 … Buckethead
Vignettes … Damu the Fudgemunk
Big Fish Theory … Vince Staples
Far from Over … Vijay Iyer Sextet
Harmony of Difference … Kamasi Washington
One Room Blues … Oscar Wilson

Honorable Mention “Hangovers” from 2016 (alpha by artist):
Coloring Book … Chance the Rapper
“Awaken, My Love!” … Childish Gambino
Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth … Charlie Hunter
Become Zero … Helen Money
The Olympians … The Olympians
Periphery III: Select Difficulty … Periphery