Friday, December 26, 2008
Does this ever happen to you? You're driving in you car, listening to the radio, your iPod, a mixtape- whatever, and you hear a song from an album that you absolutely love. I mean LOVE. An album that you can THINK your way through the entire running order, start-to-finish. An album that's as warm to you as a pair of faded jeans straight out of the dryer. An album that, for some ridiculous reason, if you ended up stranded on a desert island, you would want to have with you. An album you would NEED to have with you if you were going to survive. Whenever this happens to me, I always unconsciously blurt out to whoever is riding alongside, "THIS album... is on THE LIST".
Now, I don't want to get too heavy into the logistics of why the desert island scenario is flawed from the get go. If you just consider it for a moment, with the lack of electricity, the limited life of batteries, the destructive effects of salt water on electronics, or, for that matter, the reality of any audio player actually working for more than a few years anyway, the idea is doomed. But I guess if you are like me, and you watched a lot of Gilligan's Island reruns as a kid, you can at least muster up the possibility that perpetual music, albeit limited to a carefully chosen list of 10 albums, might be possible. So, if you were lucky enough to be stranded on a desert island with a smart professor, who could design and build a bamboo bicycle that could generate electricity, AND you had a bomb-proof playback device for cd's, vinyl, whatever, you would want to be prepared wouldn't you?
Thus, the list.
I've been working on my list since early adolescence. I vividly remember my first 8-track tape. It was "Elvis's Golden Records" and I bought it with my own allowance money at K-Mart. I couldn't have been more than 6 or 7 years old, but I completely remember rushing home, ripping it out of it's big over-sized box, then gently pushing it into the stereo 8-track deck. Over the next few weeks I literally memorized that music. Coincidentally, I have only one Elvis cd in my collection now, and it's "Elvis's Golden Records"... As the years passed, other 8-tracks entered and retreated from my life, followed by piles of vinyl records, 45's and 33's, mountains of cassette tapes, and then, much later, compact discs. When I was just a kid, my dad used to take me to swap meets at the long-ago-demolished Twin Drive-INN in Riverside, MO . I developed a behavior pattern then, which has remained in me to this very day. Whenever I see an old box of records, cassettes, cd's, or whatever lying underneath a table at a flea market or a garage sale, I MUST go through the entire box. Its an obsession that has yielded me some real treasures over the years. One of them was an 8-track of The Beatles "White Album". Actually, it was only the first half of the 2-album set, and the running order was different, due to the time constraints of the 8-track format. But I memorized it nonetheless- track breaks and all. It took me years to get used the new order when I finally bought it on vinyl. But the music contained on that 8-track destroyed me, and it still destroys me today (although in a completely different way). That's why "The White Album" is on the list. I assure you that I'll need a copy if I end up on that lonely desert island... I WILL.
My 10-album list is constant, yet ever-changing. There are albums on my list that have been on it for most of my life, and albums that are are much more recent additions. After 30 or so some-odd years of collecting, I've grown pretty skeptical. For this reason, I am, by nature, suspicious when I hear something that really knocks me out. New albums that hit me this way generally get put on a probationary sub-list and remain there for quite some time. Then, if they truly have staying power, I will move them up to the actual list. Of course, when this happens, another worthy list occupant must be demoted. I'm not sure why the list must be limited to 10 albums, but it has always has been this way, and I don't dare shake up the rules at this point.
The following is my current list (in no particular order) with supporting evidence:
1. "The White Album" - The Beatles - As a huge Beatles fan, its really hard to choose which album goes on my list. Generally, as one becomes my favorite, it will replace another. With only 10 songs, I can't really afford to have more than one Beatles album on there. But my love for this one dates way back to that original 8-track. I just love the raggedness of the whole thing. Individually, the four Beatles were never more creative. But at the same time, they were in the process of destroying each other. Its a big, overwrought, fleshy thing full of attitude and ego-mania.
2. "Ram" - Paul McCartney - Sir Paul's 2nd post-Beatle solo record has been on the list since my childhood. I used to sit for hours looking at the gatefold cover on the floor of my sister's room. It was her copy and she wouldn't loan it to me. If I wanted to hear it, I had to come into her room. The music was both friendly and, at the same time, sort of edgy. I had no idea that the lyrics were nonsensical and that Linda McCartney's voice was horrifyingly bad. Upon repeated listens as an adult, I cannot divorce these childhood experiences from the music. It has always been on the list and it always will be. I just absolutely love it and can't musically justify why. To paraphrase Descartes, "Its on the list, therefore the list is.
3. "#1 Record/Radio City" - Big Star - I can't believe that I spent nearly 35 years of my life before hearing Big Star. Although I had always "heard about" Alex Chilton's seminal Memphis, TN attempt to pitch some good old USA into the british invasion, I had never had the inclination, or determination to actually seek out a record by them. Ike Sheldon brought this amazing, near perfect, rock and roll nugget into my life several years ago. I can't remember what it bumped off when it crashed onto the list, but whatever it was, good riddance...
4. "King of the Delta Blues Singers" - Robert Johnson - When I was 13 and just starting to play the guitar, I checked this out from our local library. I had read interviews with Keith Richards and Eric Clapton and they talked about what a huge influence Robert Johnson had been on their playing. I got it home and put the record on my turntable and thought it must be on the wrong speed. The guitar was sort of harsh and metallic. and the Johnson's voice sounded like he was singing through a tin can. Needless to say, I was way too young to appreciate the unbelievably haunting songs, the amazing guitar rhythm and his vocal control. These 16 songs would later have a profound influence on me as a musician. It will always be a reference point for how good you can get if you just keep at it.
5. "The Basement Tapes" - Bob Dylan and The Band- Just like The Beatles, picking a single Dylan record is nearly impossible. I choose this one because I just love how loose it is. The boys were just screwing around in the basement. Sometimes, it is amazing what you can create when you don't think anyone is listening. Dylan sneers and croons his way through a thicket of material here. And you get the more bang-for-your-buck with the additional tunes The Band were working up by themselves. I personally think The Band never recorded anything in the studio even close to as good as the stuff in the basement of Big Pink.
6. "Jazz Impressions of New York" - Dave Brubeck Quartet - I discovered this record my sophomore year in college at the University of Missouri. I used to be what they called a "suitcaser"- meaning, I packed my dirty laundry and books into my car and headed home to the comfort of mom and dad's house every weekend. This album made that lonesome 2-hour drive from Columbia bearable weekend after weekend. Many a jazz purist will discount the Brubeck Quartet as a product of the pure commercial saccharin-jazz rampant in the naive 1950's . But I defy anyone to listen to Paul Desmond's aching saxophone on "Autumn on Washington Square" and not feel a cold chill of melancholy settling into their bones.
7. "In an Aeroplane Over the Sea" - Neutral Milk Hotel - This was one that came to me in the 90's while I was still working at the Kansas City Art Institute. Oftentimes my student workers would come into my office, heralding the latest "coolest band EVER" to me. Most of what they played me is now forgotten, but I heard this record and loved it from the first listen. Regardless of my skepticism, it only remained on my sub-list for a short time. I moved it up to full residency on the permanent list before Y2K and never looked back... By the way, I LOVE the sound of a 7th grade brass band playing Sousa marches they've only rehearsed a few times. I guess its just the chaos of it all.
8. "Odyssey and Oracle" - The Zombies - This is one that could drop off the list at any time in favor of a more worthy record. Yet, for the last 3 years or so, every time I hear it, I mutter to myself, "this is still, really...on the list". Its a crazy melange of a record- the Zombies last, that speaks so much to what could have happened if they could have just got past their petty differences and made more beautiful music together...I love the drama of "Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914) and the sweet loneliness of "A Rose for Emily". I don't see it on very many other top 10 lists. So I'll hang on to it for now, in hopes that others may discover it's beauty.
9. "Tattoo You" - The Rolling Stones - Ok, I'm sure I'm going to get a lot of negative response to this one. But here's the deal: I got "Tattoo You" as a Christmas present from my high school buddy, Mark McNally, after we played touch football with about 22 other half drunk dudes in the December Missouri mud, on some Christmas vacation Saturday afternoon. We went to my Chevy Vega during half time, to sample a room temperature 12 pack of Old Milwaukee Light, when he just busted it out from behind his back. He told me, "dude, I know you don't really like The Stones, but just listen to side two. It's the sexiest album side EVER." I went home and listened. Its been on the list ever since.
10. "Final Fade" - Howard Iceberg - The newest addition to the list, but maybe the most worthy ever. I've been a fan of Howard's since the early 90's. He's a Kansas City institution. Hell, I even played slide guitar on his "Hindu Equations" cd. But I'll never forget when Howard gave me a copy of "Final Fade" at one of our local KC shows. He handed it to me and had a funny look on his face. I read the liner notes, and realized that this might be the last Howard Iceberg record. It appeared that he was intending to retire from the music game once and for all. I took it home and realized immediately, the loss this retirement would bring. Luckily, Howard has decided to forgo his retirement a little longer. That's a bonus for everyone who can get their hands on one of his records, or, better yet. see him perform his amazing songs live.
So that's my top 10 desert island disks as of 12/26/08. As is the nature of the list, it might change somewhat tomorrow, or next week. Its my list and I make no bones about it. What I choose is a deeply personal list based on my own particular criteria. You might think I'm crazy, but I'm the one who has to live with my choices on that lonely island right?
So what are your choices? I'd like to see the lists of some others out there. Who knows...Maybe one of your top 10's will eventually creep onto my own? Of course, as a musician, I think that I know EVERYTHING about music. But there's always the possibility of something interesting creeping on to my list at any time. I'll be waiting for your own lists in the comments section of this blog entry. Feel free to expand upon your reasoning, or just provide your basic top 10. I think we will all benefit from the experience...
Happy New Year!