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© Sayre Berman/Corbis
With 30 years of astonishing recorded work behind him, during which time he's established himself as one of the world's top drummers – as a founding member of Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment, Transatlantic, Adrenaline Mob, Flying Colors and now The Winery Dogs, not to mention a series of popular cover bands – you might think that Mike Portnoy would have a long list of criteria for the drum records that he deems "essential."
True, he is a tough customer, but Portnoy is also an inveterate fanboy, and for him, choosing the best of the best largely comes down to embracing his inner teenager. "The key factor is the air drum element," he says. "If a record makes me want to play air drums, then it's a great drum album."
Beyond that, Portnoy admits that he does break down the components of albums when listening, a clear indication of the right and left brain working both independently and simultaneously. "For me, it involves about 10 levels of listening," he explains. "There’s the drumming, there’s the composition, the vocals, there’s the melodies, the production, the guitar and so on. But a great drum album is one where your attention is focused on what the drummer is doing, first and foremost, even with everything else that's going on."
Although he's played with some of the most gifted musicians on the planet, Portnoy emphasizes the importance of playing along to records in his development as a player, particularly during his formative years. “Before I took any lessons or classes, before I was in bands, the first level of education for me was playing along to records," he says. "That’s how I learned to get around the drum kit, just sitting in my room with the headphones on, playing to classic rock albums. I learned so many styles of music that way. It was also good for my timekeeping – you’re playing along to records that are usually pretty steady. It’s almost like using a metronome.”
Interestingly, Portnoy's selections for 10 Essential Drum Albums, which he's listed chronologically as he discovered them, mirror what he calls the three specific phases in his own drumming history: classic rock, prog and metal. "Looking at these 10 albums and drummers, their combined styles sum up my style and who I am in a nutshell,” he says. "They all played a big part in what I do and the music I make."