This is complex. Depending on what time in my life, it changes, hence the plural, recordS.
So I'll start with Music From Big Pink by The Band.
This album came out in 1968. I probably learned of it in the mid 70s, in my teens. I found it among my brother's records, like many other favorites, but this was unlike any other records. I think the reason it still is one of my favorites is the quality of mystery in its lyrics, delivered in such an emotional vocal, with instrumental support that matches the lyrics' yearning and passion. The record starts with a song about a daughter leaving her family, recounted by a distraught father. Here's what Greil Marcus wrote about its beginning:
"... the "famous beginning"—"We carried you/In our arms/On Independence Day"—evokes a naming ceremony not just for a child but also for a whole nation. ..the song is from the start a sermon and an elegy, a Kaddish."
Another of my favorites that I have no idea of what it is about is Chest Fever. The interplay between Danko and Helm is so powerful, like they are singing for their lives. Garth's organ starts the song, and the band begins with a funky groove that doesn't quit.
And Caldonia Mission is another I listen to and wonder every time what he's singing about.
But all 16 songs are strong and compliment each other. And they all share the value of economy-there's not a wasted note on it. That economy is something that I strive for in my records, arrangements and performances. Words that matter, drums that leave space (create a groove) harmonies that are perfectly human, not chorally perfect. The horn arrangements are subtle, there are acoustic instruments that warm up the mix and the three vastly different lead singers each have a voice that are both singular and yet complimentary.
When I saw The Band in 1976, I must admit I was surprised at how much they didn't sound like this record. It was all electric and loud and nothing like this record and the second, The Band. That's not to say I don't like The Band live, since another record on my list is Rock of Ages.
Much better critiques of the record have been written, but I thought I'd share its influence on my writing, arrangements, recording and performing. It's one of my teachers, one of many and I am grateful that this was recorded and shared.