Friday, November 14, 2008

Desert Island Discs

Between Jason's cool Movies A-Z challenge and a question in a job application I was looking at, I've found myself thinking about my favorite music. A long time ago Rolling Stone used to have a regular feature, Desert Island Discs, that invited readers to submit a list of the five albums they couldn't live without -- the essential recordings they would take along if they knew they'd be on a desert island for the rest of their lives.

This job app I've been thinking about asked for a list of 10 favorite albums from the past year. I found that a bit intimidating. I listen to a lot of music and even buy quite a bit of music, but a lot of my purchases are back-catalog releases or new recordings by old favorites. Much of the cool music the kids are listening to now doesn't really do it for me.

So, as a warm-up exercise for myself I decided to list my 10 favorite albums of all time, not just this year. That extra freedom, if anything, made the challenge tougher, and it sure didn't make my taste seem any less fuddy-duddy.

For my DID list, as with Jason's movie challenge, I wanted a little bit of variety but didn't attempt to collect the "greatest" or "most important" or "most influential" recordings. These are just the albums I most enjoy and keep coming back to.

(Click on album cover for a link to the iTunes store.)

Bob Dylan. “Time Out of Mind.” I’m a huge Dylan fan and could enthusiastically pick any number of his records from the past five decades. This 1997 release feels perfect to me, from the angry heartbreak of “Love Sick” to the enchanting storytelling of the long closing track, “Highlands.”

Mavis Staples. “We’ll Never Turn Back.” The real deal. Nobody conjures the soul of soul music or the Stax legacy for me like Mavis Staples, and her honesty, emotion and political righteousness come through on every cut of this powerful 2007 album.

Various Artists. “I’m Not There.” The soundtrack from the 2007 film “I’m Not There” is a terrific compilation that not only shows many Dylan favorites in a new light, but also turned me on to several artists whose music I didn’t know well previously, including Stephen Malkmus and Calexico.

Art Tatum. “The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 8.” One of the great overlooked jazz discs, originally released in 1956. Tatum’s superb jangly piano melds beautifully with Ben Webster’s fluffy tenor sax.

Buddy Guy. “Bring ‘Em In.” Guy is a national treasure who has famously inspired blues contemporaries and rockers for decades. (Check out the reverence on the faces of the Rolling Stones when he makes a guest appearance in the concert film “Shine a Light.”) Of Guy’s many tremendous albums, I love this 2005 release for its fiery, melodic guitar work and its both pained and funny vocals, especially on “Now You’re Gone,” “Somebody’s Sleeping in My Bed” and “Cheaper to Keep Her.”

Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt. “Sonny Side Up.” Another brilliant and, I think, under-appreciated jazz album, from 1957, combining the similar but distinct tenor sax styles of the two Sonnys with Diz’s beautiful bebop trumpet. “After Hours” is one of the all-time great jazz recordings.

Elvis Costello and The Attractions. “Blood & Chocolate.” Of the many fine Elvis albums this one, from 1986, is my favorite. It feels like a compilation of classics to me – “Uncomplicated,” “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” “Blue Chair.” And even in this great set, “I Want You,” full of pain and longing, stands out. That may be my favorite Costello song.

Frank Sinatra. “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers.” When I was a kid and scoffed at Sinatra my parents assured me I would come to love him someday. I hate it when they’re right. I dig many of Frank’s great records – I used to sing my own kids to sleep with “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” – but his second album for Capitol, released in 1955, is just pure, swingin’ fun.

Prince. “Sign O’ The Times.” If nobody swings like Sinatra, nobody grooves like Prince. Or nobody this side of James Brown anyway. I’ve been a Prince fan since “1999” – the album, not the year – and own most of his stuff, but this 1990 recording is the one I keep coming back to for the kicking mix of hot dance tracks and slow-love ballads.

Patti Smith. “Horses.” This album had a profound effect on me, rocking my small-town high school world when it came out in 1975 – not to mention helping birth the punk movement. It never gets old. Patti’s 30-year “Horses” anniversary show at the Crocodile CafĂ© in Seattle was the best concert I ever attended.

What do you think of this list, and what are your own favorites? Please post your DIDs in the comments. It could make for a great discussion thread.


Jason Bellamy said...

Fun! But much more difficult than the A-Z list! I can already see artists I left out. At least half of these I could swap just as easily with five others. But in a mad-dash decision before heading to my desert island, these would be good grabs:

Living In Clip (Ani Difranco) – A rocking live 2-disc album that captures Ani at her best and purest. Straight-forward rock – acoustic with an electric sound – with Ani at the center of it all. Shortly after this, the righteous babe fell in love with droning horns that have drowned her voice and her trademark sound ever since. Shame.

Trouble (Ray Lamontagne) – A recent classic. Sadly, I see him falling into the same trap that doomed Difranco. His sound has gotten bigger. It isn’t too big. Yet. But the acoustic simplicity of this album is its beauty.

Crash (Dave Matthews Band) – The vast, improvisational sound of DMB is at its best here. Two albums later, DMB’s songs were starting to sound the same. Here it’s the group discovering itself and reaching its peak at the same time.

A Rush of Blood to the Head (Coldplay) – See comments about “Crash.” Ditto.

The Fountain Soundtrack (Clint Mansell) – There has to be a movie score; I listen to them constantly. Mansell’s “Fountain” score is perhaps the best of the past decade, both in compliment to the film and as a stand-alone. It mixes tenderness with force and urgency. To listen to it is to go on a journey.

Jagged Little Pill (Alanis Morissette) – There’s a reason almost every song on this album topped the charts at some point. They’re all good. A terrific pop/rock blend.

The Immaculate Collection (Madonna) – Because I need some pure pop, right?

Joshua Tree (U2) – The more recent “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” might be just as good. But this is a classic band as its classic best.

The Dance (Fleetwood Mac) – A live tour of their greatest hits mixed with the “Rumours” hit that should have been (“Silver Springs”) and some new stuff (“Bleed to Love Her”). A fantastic album to listen to on a good set of headphones and really fall into the sound.

Belafonte ’89 (Harry Belafonte) – Another concert album. Belafonte has been pleasing to my ear ever since he appeared on “The Muppet Show” and sang “Turn the World Around,” a regular tune at all his concerts (and the song he performed at Jim Henson’s memorial service) that never made it onto an album until another concert release in the late 90s when his voice was wearing down. The ’89 concert misses “Turn the World Around,” but it has a heartbreaking version of “Try to Remember,” in addition to crisp performances of all the typical Belafonte fare. I saw Belafonte live at the Hult Center in Eugene on my 18th birthday. It remains the concert I’d most like to relive. Oh, and the other reason for picking this album? Because I’m on a fucking desert island! Just seems right.

* Bonus pick:

A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra (Sinatra) – Because, yes, the island needs some Frank. And this is The Best Christmas Music Album, Period!

Mark said...

Jason! Excellent! Thanks for playing along, and I like your list.

Well, I don't really know Lamontagne and I don't like DMB (Coldplay: ditto) but otherwise I'm down with your picks.

I hope to see other M&M'ers give this a try. It ain't easy.

Jason Bellamy said...

Check out Lamontagne's "Trouble" album. Probably my favorite CD of the past five years. For what it's worth, I've given it as a gift at least four times, and it's been a winner each time.

freda said...

when my finger is better and my move is finished I will play. It's funny though, when I was a child in England there was a program on the radio called "desert island disks," of course back then a disk was a record, 78 at that. You guys are cheating with whole albums.

Val said...

Remain in Light (Talking Heads, 1980)
Californication (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1999)
Flesh + Blood (Roxy Music, 1980)
Freedom of Choice (Devo, 1980)

Rita said...

Over five decades of Ol' Blue Eyes.

It's so nice to be right, but must admit you've taught me to love a lot of great music over the years.
(Even though some of it took a while.)

mich said...

Jason, I love Trouble, too. I haven't admitted it to many people, so now I'm coming out.

Full list to come. Rest assured The Boss will make an appearance.

Jason Bellamy said...

Man, I didn't know liking "Trouble" was a guilty pleasure. Coldplay, sure.

Still, glad I'm not alone.

Janice said...

Certain disc never stray too far: Dan Hicks and the Hotlicks; Velvet Underground (it's some sort of greatest hits that I've listen to for the past couple of decades); Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues; Brian Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets; I would have to agree on Horses and would add some very early Dylan, perhaps his first. I guess I don't change much.

Reed Price said...

I love Bob Dylan, too. I'll throw Blood on the Tracks out there an alternate, just because it has such an internal consistency.

The Roches - probably their debut album; but I like Nerds too. They show great musicianship, but don't take themselves too seriously.

No Beatles? I think I would pick Let It Be, because you have this palpable sense that the center cannot hold.

Kind of Blue, Miles Davis. Miles at his best, I think. Though Sketches of Spain is pretty awesome too.

Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace. A great performance by Aretha at her father's church.