Dan Wilson is a gray eminence looming in the shadows of the glamorous world of pop music. His career spans back to the late 1980s and leads up to critically-acclaimed and commercially successful songwriter and production credits for artists like Adele, Dixie Chicks, Chris Stapleton, John Legend, Dierks Bentley, P!nk, Taylor Swift and many others. He’s received a couple of Grammys on his way, but even though he’s highly cherished, he’s still an unknown name to broader audiences.
Wilson started out as a member of the alternative Minneapolis outfit Trip Shakespeare, led by his brother Matt, who released a number of great (and sadly overlooked) albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s (including gems like 1988’s Are You Shakespearienced? and 1990’s Across the Universe). While Trip Shakespeare was a pioneer band in the alternative ‘90s boom, his next band, Semisonic, turned out as a more commercially appealing act of its decade. The band is still mostly known for their major breakthrough single “Closing Time” from their charting 1998 album, Feeling Strangely Fine.
Semisonic demised in the early 2000s, but Dan Wilson has continued to craft great tunes both as a solo artist and working with others. He has become a highly sought-after songwriting collaborator. Mainly known for Grammy award winning “Not Ready to Make Nice” (co-written with Dixie Chicks) and “Someone Like You” (co-written with Adele), he also co-wrote nine songs on Phantogram’s album, Three.
Dan Wilson has also released a couple of wonderful solo albums. Love Without Fear (2014) is a particularly lovely and eclectic collection of songs, backed by folks like Blake Mills, Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins and Dixie Chick Natalie Maines. His upcoming solo album, Re-Covered, is a collection of his reinterpretations of songs he wrote for and with other artists and will be released on August 4, 2017.
We invited Dan Wilson to share his list of 5 Albums That Changed His Life.
“I came of age musically in the ’70s, a great time for albums,” Wilson tells us. “Recording artists aspired to make great LPs, and listeners devoted the time to get immersed in them. Unlike now, at that time, it was commonly agreed that albums were among the highest forms of popular art — movies, paintings, albums. Singles were cool, but the real question was, ‘Can they make the great long playing record?’”
“So as a music lover and aspiring musician, I grew up dreaming of making albums as great as the ones that moved me and transported me to new places,” Wilson continues. “As Stevie Wonder said, ‘To the vision in my mind.’ I could probably make a ’Five Albums That Changed My Life’ list for every decade since 1970; there have been so many. But this list concentrates on early days and albums that set me on my path as a songwriter.”
Bob Dylan: The Times They Are A-Changin’
When I was in junior high school, I lived in a western suburb of Minneapolis called St. Louis Park. The route of the number 17 bus ran past both my high school and my house on its way uptown and then to downtown Minneapolis. It was about 25 minutes from my house to the Walker Library uptown. Walker Library had a collection of popular LPs, which you could listen to there or borrow. I was mostly interested in their Bob Dylan section. They had The Times They Are A-Changing, Bringing it All Back Home, John Wesley Harding and a bunch of other Dylan albums, and I listened to them all. But the one I kept going back to was The Times They Are A-Changing.
[The album] was so apocalyptic and prophetic. Dylan’s voice was resonant but calm, and he still managed to sound like a lone voice of rage on a mountaintop, heralding the doom of mankind. He made all the other singers seem soft and syrupy. The album had my favorite two sides of Bob Dylan, the romantic croon and the howl of outrage, but it leaned heavy on the latter: “Hollis Brown,” about a poor farmer murdering his starving family, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Only a Pawn in their Game” and the title song, one of my favorite songs ever. And on the crooner side, there was “Boots of Spanish Leather,” which still slays me.
Joni Mitchell: Hejira
I had heard a few of Joni Mitchell’s folk hits — “Both Sides Now” and “The Circle Game,” among others — when this album hit me like the number 17 bus. It wasn’t a folk album. Not even close. If anything, it was a rock album hybridized with jazz. I was already getting into jazz through Weather Report. That band’s bassist, Jaco Pastorius, affected me in the way I imagine Jimi Hendrix might have affected young musicians ten years earlier. And Jaco played on several of Hejira’s songs. His electric bass a liquid and bittersweet countermelodic voice to Joni’s wry and pitiless revelations. As she laid bare her own hypocrisies and fears, his bass flew up above her voice and cast a golden glow of hope on the songs. And she gave that bass all the room in the world. It was the best of jazz and pop in one record and I’ve never quite shaken the spell.
Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness’ First Finale
I could do a “Five Albums that Changed My Life” with all Stevie albums. This album was the biggest revelation of them all. I first heard Fulfillingness’ First Finale in the basement of a friend. He played me the song “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” and it blew my mind. A pop song about God, religion, mankind’s fate, hope. It was almost too huge for me to take in and so very beautiful. This album also had fiery political protest: “You Haven’t Done Nothin’;” sexy love: “Creepin’;” breaking up: “It Ain’t No Use;” and the darkness of “They Won’t Go When I Go.” It had everything, a whole world in ten songs.
Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville
In 1991, I was trying to figure out how to write songs about my own life, my circle of friends, my small adventures and large-scale dreams in Minneapolis. My friends and rivals in the band scene seemed like enough of a cast of characters for a song, but I wasn’t sure how to write it. So when Exile in Guyville came along, it was doubly funny and joyful for me. First, even though she was writing about the scene in Chicago, it might as well have been my friends she was skewering for their contradictions and covertly retro values. I recognized those people and laughed along with Phair’s ultra-frank narrator. And second, she was showing me, through the example of this album, how one’s own circle of friends and lovers could be more than enough to populate a lifetime’s worth of songs.
Oasis: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
“Live Forever,” from Oasis’ first album Definitely Maybe, was already enough to put that band’s songwriter Noel Gallagher into my personal pantheon of rock. But Morning Glory took it to the next level. “Some Might Say,” “Champagne Supernova,” “Wonderwall,” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” were all first-listen classics to my ears, and they’re still shockingly fresh and alive. How much nonsense can you pack into a song and still have it make perfect sense? How little heavy metal can you include in a song and still have it rock? How much hopeful uplift can shine around the snarl of dimed Marshall stacks? When that album came out, I felt a rush of permission. You could make great rock records without being able to sing like Chris Cornell or Layne Staley. What a relief! Not that I sounded much like Liam Gallagher either when I sang, but on a good day, I could keep pace with his brother, Noel.