Thursday, January 26, 2017

It's Music to My Cards - WRJ's Album Challenge

It began with Gavin at Baseball Card Breakdown and became an official challenge thanks to Night Owl - the latest challenge to hit the blogosphere has been the "album challenge."  The goal in mind is to take ten musical albums from your younger years, albums that had a great affect on your personal growth and musical tastes, and match them with baseball cards.  As a former radio DJ who collects vinyl and band t-shirts, I couldn't help but take up this challenge.  Any opportunity to blend two of my passions is one that I'll immediately jump on.

Unsurprisingly, it seems that many a blogger is almost as passionate about music as they are collecting baseball cards.  It's been fun to read all of the comparisons drawn, thus far.  On the other hand, personally, it's been quite difficult to narrow the list of albums down to ten.  I could have easily doubled this amount and still had LP's on the cutting room floor; but, modern attention spans wouldn't be able to handle that.  In fact. this is probably pushing it.

On that note, without any further ado, allow me to present to you my ten most influential albums (from my teens/early 20's), in no particular order, since cropping the list down to ten was tough enough:

1)  Infinity on High - Fall Out Boy

My high school/college days were right in the thick of the pop punk/emo explosion that took place in the alternative music scene, during the 2000's.  Add in the fact that I'm from Chicago and it was almost inevitable that Fall Out Boy would become one of my favorite bands.  While many "scene kids" would cite the emo/punk From Under the Cork Tree as FOB's most influential album, it was the variety of sounds woven into 2007's Infinity on High that sealed my fan-hood.

Strains of hip hop, pop, electronic and R&B were spread throughout the track-listing, with songs such as triumphant "Thriller" (ft. Jay-Z),  the Maroon 5-ish, tragic love song "I'm Like a Lawyer.." and the string section-augmented "Thnks Fr th Mmrs" blaring on MySpace pages across the internet.  However, it was the heavy stomp and Motown sound of "This Ain't a Scene, It's An Arms Race" that inspired the most (terrible) dashboard karaoke from me.

The cards that I've chosen to represent this album are these 2007 Heritage singles, featuring Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis.  While the song itself is truly about the rapid development and in-fighting of "the scene," baseball has always been something of an arms race itself - a literal arms race.  That off-season, GM Jim Hendry entered that race in an attempt to "restock" his battered pitching staff.  He even finalized Lilly's contract while lying in a hospital bed, after after an angioplasty.

2)  A Hangover You Don't Deserve - Bowling For Soup

Keeping with the pop punk, next up, we have the perpetual jokesters known as Bowling For Soup and a track listing that doesn't have a single dud.  I purchased this CD, used, from a local FYE after hearing "1985" come through a friend's car radio while driving around on some sunny, weekend afternoon.  That number steals all the attention, but there isn't a single bad track on the album.

A Hangover You Don't Deserve features that iconic, stuck-in-the-past tune, but it also contains underrated gems such as the anthemic "Shut Up and Smile," a story of what could have been in "Almost," and a drunken roll call of Texan celebrities in "Ohio."  Plus, only BFS could write a touching love song about a man and his trucker hat.

This was an easy pairing to make, as Ozzie Timmons is sporting a Cubs trucker hat on his 1993 Bowman appearance.  Why?  No affiliate that I'm aware of ever used trucker hats.  I've always found this to be strange and fairly amusing.

3)  Boston - Boston

Moving backwards in time, quite a bit, while I immersed myself in pop punk during the second half of high school, I grew up on a steady diet of classic rock.  As my father always said, you can't appreciate what you have without knowing where it came from.  With that in mind, I started my musical, rock n' roll exploration with the Elvis years and moved my way forward.

From eight grade through sophomore year, I was obsessed with 70's arena rock:  Styx, REO Speedwagon (more on them later), Cheap Trick, Foreigner, etc.  However, the best album put out by any of those bands was easily Boston's self-titled debut.  The studio project by guitarist Tom Scholz was a surprise smash and it's smooth production, guitar solos and big choruses had me hooked from first listen.  I loved it so much that I bought it on vinyl, cassette, CD and downloaded it in MP3 format.

Coming up with a comparative card was quite a task here, as there is no single song on the album that I like more than the rest - it's truly a piece of art, start to finish.  Thus, without that jumping off point, I felt a little lost.  I might have to invoke creative license here, just like Tom did in his fictionalized account of Boston's rise to fame in "Rock and Roll Band."  Boston never even played a show before Scholz recorded this album - heck, they weren't even a band yet.  Similarly, Keith Comstock never played for, nor was ever associated with the Cubs franchise, despite what this error card might claim.

4)  Moving Pictures - Rush

Rush was another band that I discovered during that time of arena rock infatuation - while they definitely lean more towards the progressive side, I don't think it's hard to hear the cross appeal.  After all, AOR was essentially born out of the progressive movement.

This is an album that I moved backwards on - I first discovered Rush through their dystopian future, album cut, "Red Barchetta."  I recall it being on one of my earliest mix CD's and listening to that track on repeat, with my yellow, portable CD player, as I laid out on the top of the storage shed in our backyard.  It was a few years before I picked up the full LP in the discount bin of my record store and discovered that Moving Pictures also had "Tom Sawyer," "Limelight," "Witch Hunt," etc. to offer; at that point, Geddy Lee's lyricism had me spellbound.

In the automotive industry, the term "barchetta" is used for a two-seat car without any kind of roof and is correctly pronounced as "bar╦łketta."  In the Rush song, Mr. Lee sings it with a "ch" sound - a common mispronunciation.  Likewise, longtime Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez's first name should read as "ah-RAH-mis;" yet, throughout his 18-year career, countless sportscasters and fans alike insisted on calling him "air-AH-mis."  Barchetta, Aramis... words are hard.

5)  Never Mind the Bollocks - The Sex Pistols

The first time I heard the Sex Pistols, I immediately slammed my laptop shut because their sound scared me, outright.  The sneering punk rock sound was not something this kid used to classic rock and the FOB sound was used to.  Despite this initial shock, I decided to give "Anarchy in the U.K." another go and stick with it all the way through.  Before long, I had fallen in love with the entirety of Never Mind the Bollocks, thanks to the pointed social commentary found in "Holiday in the Sun," the fearless bad mouthing of their former record label with "EMI" and the three-chord attitude exemplified on "No Feelings."

In the run-up to the Pistols first album, several delays were encountered along the way.  One of the most well-known incidents was with Bill Grundy, the host of the British talk show Tonight.  the foul-mouthed punks didn't sensor themselves in their interview, throwing f-bombs around with little care.  The exchange got particularly heated when Grundy made a lewd comment about fellow guest Siouxsie Sioux, after which the Johnny Rotten and company really let him have it.

Obviously, the parallel between the potty-mouthed punks on television and the infamous, profanity laced tirade given to reporters by former Cubs manager Lee Elia should be easy to draw.  Grundy was suspended for two weeks and Today was cancelled two months after the Pistols incident and, while Elia initially survived calling Cubs fans every nasty word under the sun (several times over), he was eventually fired after another run-in with the front office, before the 1983 season was out.  You might say that he too was cancelled.

6)  Abbey Road - The Beatles

It always felt like cheating to say that the Beatles were my favorite band - there's something for everyone to like in the discography of the most important musical act of the 20th century.  Nevertheless, then and now, the four lads from Liverpool have been my utmost favorites since I truly discovered them in high school.  My love for their work has gone through many moods - at times, my choice album has been the psychedelic masterpiece Sgt. Pepper's and at others, it's been the evolving soundscapes of Rubber Soul; but, at this time, I was all about Abbey Road.

It's not their most ambitious piece of work; in fact, it reeks of incompletion and tension.  With that in mind, it was the very last album that the Beatles would record together (Let It Be came out last, but was already canned before Abbey).  Nevertheless, the tight harmonies of "Because," the hard-rock stomp of " I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and the throat-tearing vocal performance of "Oh Darling" still kept me coming back for more.

The world's most influential rock band went out with an all-time classic album with downright iconic cover art, as only they could.  In the same vein, one of the pioneers of the modern trading card industry, Bowman, closed out their independent run with design for the ages, as well - the "color TV" set from 1955.  I don't think I have to explain why these are wonderful - just feast your eyes!  In 1956, Topps would buy out Bowman and, just like the Beatles, their run of "hits" was over far too soon.

7)  American Idiot - Green Day

Green Day were almost passe in the first half of the 2000's, after they had lit the world on fire with their pop punk masterpiece Dookie in 1994.  Each of their next three follow ups were less successful than the last and, by 2004, they were afterthoughts in the music scene.  So, what'd they do?  The reinvented themselves by finding their political voice and writing the first punk rock opera - American Idiot - which has since become their defining LP, launching them back into the stratosphere.

Without getting too political here, this album and I were in the same head-space when it came out.  As a frustrated freshman in high school, I too was just beginning to find my voice, and Green Day's ode to lemming culture in "American Idiot," their anti-war anthem "Holiday" and forlorn sense of loneliness on "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" caught me by the ears.  Like many kids of the time, I bought in on Green Day's transformation.


Like Green Day, many bands and artists have had to re-invent themselves, sometimes several times over, in order to regain their cultural foothold.  Likewise, many a baseball player has had to reinvent themselves in order to stay in the game; for instance, Sean Doolittle.  As you can see above, Mr. Doolittle was once a well-regarded first base prospect.  But, two knee surgeries robbed him of his power, so he reinvented himself into an All-Star bullpen arm.

*This 2008 Tristar PROjections, green reflective parallel is the only card to appear on this list without a Cubs connection.  However, seeing as it's rare cardboard appearance for the local Kane County Cougars, I've been dying to show it off.

8)  Sounds of Silence - Simon and Garfunkel

There are few songs that continue to move me every time I listen to them, long after I first heard them on the airwaves.  The haunting melody of "The Sound of Silence" is one of those rare musical pieces that makes me examine myself and the world around me, even after playing it for the 457th time.  It's that powerful.

However, it wasn't until I attended a random rummage sale, shortly after graduating from college, that I discovered the entirety of the album.  The sale was a flat price for a filled bag of junk and I noticed a cassette version of the record nestled among the stained clothes and tchotchkes.  Since my '96 Ford Escort had a cassette player, I figured I could use some new tunes.  On the way home, I popped it in and was immediately hit hard in the chest by "Leaves That Are Green" and "Blessed" and I knew that I'd been missing out.

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song/I'm twenty-two now but I won't be for long/Time hurries on/And the leaves that are green turn to brown... This forlorn tale of a young man coming to terms with the quick passage of time really struck me when I first heard it. After all, I too was 22 years old, just out of college, without a purpose or direction in a rapidly changing world. The sentiments expressed by Paul Simon back in 1964 are reflected by the beloved ivy on the Wrigley wall as each year comes and goes - And they wither with the wind/And they crumble in your hand.

9)  Hi Infidelity - REO Speedwagon

The very first band that I saw in concert was REO Speedwagon - I truly was the coolest kid in my high school...  It was a lonely experience having REO as my favorite band as a twelfth grader in 2006; but, be that as it may, I was in the thick of my arena rock phase and Hi Infidelity was the base around which that was built.  My grandfather was frontman Kevin Cronin's parent's handy-man, so I was lucky enough to get tickets and backstage passes whenever I wanted.  It was only natural that I'd take to them.

While it was mocked as soft at the time and it hasn't necessarily aged well, the "soft arena rock" sounds of REO's most successful album drew me in more and more with each listen.  Yes - you've got the cheesy power ballads in "Keep on Loving You" and "Take it on the Run," but there also some underrated, mid-tempo rockers, like "Out of Season" and "Don't Let Him Go."  Most importantly, this album contains my wife and I's song - "Tough Guys."  Yea - I'm a big, ol' softy.

Additionally, the 1981 album also includes a bouncy, break-up number entitled "In Your Letter."  This, of course, sounds extremely dated - who writes letters any more, let alone breaks up with them?  Anyway, what does any of this have to do with this 1999 Fleer Skybox Premium Spring Fling single?

Well, on the back, it's formatted like a postcard - how cool is that?  A postcard is a letter, of sorts.  This isn't a breakup letter; but, it is close enough for me to consider this a connection between baseball cards and Hi Infidelity.

10)  Lunatic - Kongos

I'm going to fudge up the time frame a little bit here with my last selection.  Instead of sticking to the past, I'm going to chose a more recent release to close out this challenge.  Kongos are a South African band who have been around for about a decade, but only recently came to prominence in the U.S. thanks to their infectiously catchy track, "Come With Me Now."  As great as that little number is, this band has so much more to offer.

After catching them do a set at the Firefly Music Festival a couple of summers ago, I was stunned with their sound.  Playing mostly from 2014's Lunatic, songs like "Sex on the Radio," "This Time I Won't Forget" and "Escape" interwove strains of rap, rock, folk and electronic flawlessly.  How many rock bands can pull off an accordion?  Kongos can.

Much like how Kongos self-titled album injected some new life into the rock scene, Topps Bunt also did the same for baseball cards.  Not the app, mind you - the actual cards.  The cheap price point, the no-frills nature of the set, the big team logos and simple design provided a much-needed, low end product to appeal to the non "mega mojo hits" crowd.  What Kongos did for my hopes about rock's future, Bunt did for baseball cards.

With that, we've reached the end of my album challenge.  In the words of the immortal Jerry Garcia, what a long, strange trip it's been.

Music and baseball - my two strongest passions, blended together. 

This made for a fun and challenging exercise.  Coming up with the list, somehow narrowing it down to a measly ten, finding at least one card to make a connection (sometimes tenuous, at best)... I spent way more time on this than I probably should have.  I regret nothing.  Plus, if you haven't done so yet, I encourage anyone reading this to attempt this challenge too.

What albums shaped your life?


  1. Great post! Funny how everything on your list is either before or after my wheelhouse of the 90s.. But still plenty of stuff here I dig as well. Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits definitely got a ton of play in my house when I was young (and now too, though I've expanded into checking out their less heralded songs in addition to the hits).

  2. Hey, we share an album! (Moving Pictures)

    Hi-Infidelity was absolutely huge when I was a sophomore in high school. Those "yacht rock" mockers weren't there to see cool it was at the time.

    Also, Abbey Road is the first CD I ever bought.

  3. Great job even if I have trouble identifying with your choices. I do connect with Simon and Garfunkel. They were some of the first albums I bought as a teen (and I still have all of them). Looking over the track list, I was reminded of Paul Simon's famous turkey suit appearing on SNL,
    [ Paul Simon walks out to home base dressed as a giant turkey. He pauses, then takes the microphone from the stool and starts singing "Still Crazy After All These Years". After a few bars, he stops and addresses the bandleader. ]

    Paul Simon: Cut it. Forget it. Forget it, Richard. [ turns to the audience ] You know, I said, when the turkey concept was first brought up, I said there's a very good chance I'm gonna end up looking stupid if I come out wearing it. I mean, everyone said, "Oh, it's Thanksgiving, go ahead."

    You know, I felt it was not in any way in keeping with my image, the lyrics, "The Boxer", any of these songs. They said, "Hey, you know, you take yourself soooo seriously. Why don't you stop taking yourself soooo seriously for a while and loosen up a little bit, and maybe people will laugh. You want to be Mr. Alienation, you can be Mr. Alienation." Well, I didn't want to be Mr. Alienation. I want to be a regular guy, but I feel this has just been a disaster. I'm sorry. I'm just gonna go and change.

  4. Great job in posting this challenge. It must have taken a lot of though.

    Love the pop punk albums that you posted; I was a huge Fall Out Boy fan but had been loosing interest in them during the release of Infinity On High.

    Great choices.

  5. Great list of albums! I grew up listening to 70's rock thanks to two older brothers who'd play Boston and Rush on a regular basis.

  6. I personally prefer "Drunk Enough To Dance" over "A Hangover You Don't Deserve", but I can't really take credit for either album because Mrs. Shlabotnik is the one who bought them.

    Abbey Road was the first non-compilation Beatles album I bought, so it would be a candidate for my list... if I were to make a list, but I don't know that I'd have the time.