10 for the Desert Island
Have I really been blogging about records for this long without doing a proper Desert Island post? It is, of course, the oldest question in all of music fandom, this question of which stack of vinyl you’d most like to have handy should you ever find yourself marooned (and, inexplicably, with a working player and some kind of power supply). It should be noted, though, that asking someone for their ten desert island picks is not the same as simply asking them for their ten favorite records, their ten sentimental selections, or even the ten records they reach for with the greatest frequency.
Why, were any of those the question at hand, I reckon my answers would include a handful of Dylans, a smattering of Joe Henrys, and perhaps a wildcard pick from my jazz shelf. But that wouldn’t be a very fun list, to write or to read or to have on hand while stuck on the island. A desert island list, the way I understand it, should be a list of ten albums that best encapsulates everything the listmaker loves and listens for—to the extent that any ten records could ever do such a thing. A good desert island lists spans genre and mood, and doesn’t repeat the same artist twice. Naturally, beloved artists will be amiss—we’re talking about just ten records, after all—and favorite records will be edged out. If I can’t have both Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, then this is obviously not even close to a comprehensive catalog of the records I love. (And picking the Dylan-in-mono box set would likely be a cheat too extreme, I fear.)
These albums on my list, then, offer kind of a template—in general, the kinds of records I love, and the kinds of records I might try to make, were I myself a record-maker. The only theme they share, I guess, is that they are all filled with great performances of great songs, which is the best way to sum up what I think makes any record worthwhile.
The rules well defined, I must start my list where you all know I must start it—with a Joe Henry album, and Tiny Voices (2003) in particular. The album is not yet ten years old, but it’s been the album I call my favorite for almost its entire existence—and what better selection could one make for a desert island then this music, which seems to recreate itself every time it’s played. Tiny Voices is pure electric mayhem worthy of late-60’s Dylan, howling nightclub crooning worthy of Waits, a jazz-rock bastard Miles might have spawned, and its songs abide and embody mystery better than any I know. This is a dangerous singer/songwriter album, and not for the faint of heart; but, it brings joy to my heart, and documents the kind of spontaneity that I’ve come to prefer in the records I hear.
Anyone who knows me at all knows that any list that begins with Joe Henry must surely move on to Dylan—ah, but which Dylan will it be? I have said in the past that “Love & Theft” is my favorite of Bob’s, for the way it crosses the paths of everywhere else he’s traveled, and it probably is the one I play the most. This is a desert island list, however, and I want to make sure I have a good folk album on hand. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) actually makes for a good companion to L&T, as both of them are unimpeachable and really rather mind-blowing feats of songwriting. I think, in fact, that Dylan’s second album is still perhaps an album he’s never topped; with a run of songs that beings with the timeless protest-spiritual “Blowin’ in the Wind,” moves into the ravishing romance of “Girl from the North Country,” bristles with “Masters of War” and touches on surrealism and humor and sadness and spite along the way, an argument could be made that it’s an album nobody has ever topped.
A good folk album calls for a good rock album, of course, and I know of none more exhilarating or affecting than Rod Stewart’s classic Every Picture Tells a Story (1971). Rod, when he was good, was better than anybody else; he only gave us about five good years, but this album tops the stupendous Never a Dull Moment and even the sublime Faces box set to stand as his crowning glory. This is back before the disco and the American Songbook and the karaoke, mind you, back when Rod was the unrivaled interpreter of Dylan, back when he bent soul and R&B songs into blistering rock and roll, back when he burned the house down with an Elvis tune and eased into “Amazing Grace” like it was the most natural thing in the world, which, for him, it probably was. This is a wild and wooly celebration of Song itself, and Rod’s refusal to separate the spirit of folk music from the spirit of rock and roll makes it timeless and endlessly appealing, at least to me. I just don’t think rock albums get any better.
Speaking of albums that are singularly affecting: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (1968) is one that always changes the weather, and moves completely in its own plane; only Van’s own Veedon Fleece even comes close, I think, but even it doesn’t quite kindle the same purity of poetry, the same warmth and spontaneity. This is music borne of spirit and instinct, Van proving himself—even at such a young age!—as soul singer and bandleader without peer. Evidently, the only direction he gave the musicians was to follow his lead, and lead them he did, scatting straight into the mystic. Astral Weeks is a spiritual album, if you’ll pardon the cliché, and it sets the standard for the kind of poetry and storytelling that I love: Where navel-gazing and introspection increasingly bore me as a listener, this album grasps for both mystery and Truth in its pursuit of the beloved, and of a time and place when we’ll never grow so old again.
My fifth album is a bit of a cheat, I confess, though not much of one; picking a box set instead of a proper album may seem dubious at first, but The Birth of Soul (box set released 1991, music recorded 1951-1959) is a collection that really plays like an album, in the sense that it tells a complete story. (Besides, where else might one find all these timeless Ray Charles singles?) It’s an origins story, the eureka moment caught on tape—the story of Ray Charles inventing what we call soul. At the beginning of the set he sits at the piano, with all the separate threads of smooth R&B, jazz improvisation, gospel hollering and primitive rock and roll gathered in his hands. It doesn’t take but two or three songs before he’s woven them into something that both defines and transcends genre. You hear this music being born, which is what makes this set so alluring, but I’m picking it here just because everything in the set is so irresistible, whether it’s church-time moaning, sweet lover’s rock, midnight blues, or whatever box you care to check for “What’d I Say.”
Of course, I’m going to need something from the world of jazz sooner or later. The jazz LP I reach for most regularly is one by Charles Mingus, specifically his Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963). Kind of a souped-up “greatest hits” album, this record finds Mingus revisiting some of the most beloved and still-kicking songs from earlier in his career, floating in an Ellington cover and one new composition for good measure. The thing is, though, this is Mingus as his scrappy best, as he leads an 11-piece band through performances that are just scorching hot, rawer and more raucous even than the fiery originals. There were always many sides to Mingus, of course—the Mingus who loved the hoop and holler of primitive gospel and blues, and the Mingus who preferred the refinement of ballet and orchestral song-suites—but this set brings them together, with music where the sophistication is evident even as the songs kick and stomp with real fury. It’s an incredibly lively and soulful piece of work, which is really all I ask of music, and of Mingus.
But if that’s my rowdy jazz album, my desert island list is also going to need a midnight blues record—something for the quiet hours. Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967) fits the bill, though here again I find myself admitting that this is the most raucous and rambunctious album the artist ever made. Are you sensing a pattern? Nina has long been a favorite singer of mine, and like Brother Ray she is someone whose work isn’t easily confined by the conventions of genre. Sings the Blues is an album comprised of intimate, small-band performances, and the close quarters of the musicians leads to an album that just boils over with after-hours desperation and roiling roadhouse blues; I don’t think there’s ever been a song that exudes sexual longing quite like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” any more than I think there’s ever been a song that poses a question and demands an answer with the same force and swagger as “Do I Move You?” And those aren’t even the highlights, necessarily. This is Nina’s finest hour as a singer and a bandleader, and if I do think I’d rather miss some of her more political numbers while marooned on the island, this album at least offers “Backlash Blues” to tide me over—and really, who needs politics on a desert island anyway?
I need to cheat once again for my next pick, opting for one more box set, namely the Def Jam Music Group, Inc.: 10th Year Anniversary (box set released 1995, music recorded 1985-1994) to scratch the hip-hop itch. Here again, though, this is a box set that unfolds like an album, and tells a story—the story of a culture and a movement, of the world of possibility that still exists in rap and of the seeds of trouble and excess that were there from the beginning. There were other rap labels besides Def Jam, of course, but this perfectly-curated compilation allows us to behold the full spectrum of what this music is, with the incendiary polemics and Bomb Squad noise of Public Enemy crashing into the heavy-metal frat-boy anthems of Beastie Boys, all while LL Cool J creates the template for hip-hop swagger, Slick Rick blazes trails in street-corner storytelling, and the rest of the label’s roster sticks mostly to crafting killer beats and rhymes. All told, this box set just can’t be beat, as far as sheer volume of great American music goes.
Even a mention of the Beasties makes me realize that I need a killer party record here—and no rock and roll record gives me the same sweet rush as that lone studio album from Rockpile, Seconds of Pleasure (1980). The honor of all-time best pure rock and roll band would have to go to either these guys or The Faces—the latter group represented above via my Rod Stewart pick—and the fact that Rockpile could take that honor based on, really, a single album (and a live one, just unearthed and released last year) is a testament to this album’s power. Indeed, for me, Seconds of Pleasure is formative—an album that shows just how irresistible the sound of a totally unpretentious, good-times rock outfit could be. It’s a rush of big sing-along hooks, humor, and rock the way they did it in the 50’s, which all sounds pretty perfect to my ears. Plus, it’s full of fine moments from the great Nick Lowe (especially the dynamite single “Teacher Teacher,” the pure sleaze of “Pet You and Hold You,” the pint-hoisting pub anthem “Play That Fast Thing One More Time,” and the brilliantly hilarious faux-memoir “When I Write the Book”) and his partner in crime Dave Edmunds (whose barnstorming, piledriving cover of “If Suger Was as Sweet As You” is a highlight). But the best song might be the one Nick gave to Billy Bremner—a winsomely earnest rendition of his classic song “Heart,” better than the version Nick cut himself.
I’m down to a final selection here, which is, of course, when things get a bit hairy. I’d be a fool to omit Elvis Costello, and Allen Toussaint, and Over the Rhine, and Tom Waits—but I think I’d be a bigger fool still to leave out the great Miles Davis. (And as with Dylan and Henry, longtime readers surely knew from the start that a Miles pick was inevitable.) My favorite Miles has long been A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971), a record that may be more shrouded in myth than any other I can think of—including the still-murky details of the recording sessions, the tales of heroic ad hoc soloing from Miles and Herbie Hancock (who just happened to be in the studio that day), the masterful production work that splices the Jack Johnson material with some familiar sounds from In a Silent Way—but what makes it a favorite, and a stone classic, is that it just kicks. This is Miles at his most badass, even more so than On the Corner; and his band (more lethal than the Rolling Stones, Miles said) is muscular enough to hold up the trumpeter’s own astonishing, athletic solos—maybe the best he ever did. So forget what I may have said about some of the other records on this list: Jack Johnson is the greatest rock album of all time.
All this begs one final question, of course; what are the ten records you’d most like to have on standby, should you ever find yourself stranded?