Sunday, November 16, 2008

List of the Month - 'Desert Island' albums

I gather the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs is still going, the longest-running radio show in the world.

Since I was playing this game with some friends just last night, this should be an easy post.... Then again, perhaps not. Winnowing down my huge - and eccentrically diverse - music collection to just 10 selections (on the Desert Island, I think you're only allowed 8) is a daunting task; and I'd probably come up with a different list every time you ask me. However, on this particular Sunday morning, my inclinations are thus (yes, rock and pop only for now: things would just get way too complicated if we included classic blues, folk, world music, classical...):

Queen - A Night At The Opera
The albums that bookend it, Sheer Heart Attack and A Day At The Races, also have a very strong claim, but I suppose - if I can only have one album by any given artist - this one must take first place. It was one of the first rock albums I ever heard, and (years later!) the very first I ever bought for myself. There's also a particular nostalgic link with my childhood, in that it was recorded at the Rockfield studios - in my hometown on the Welsh border.

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
Yes, The Wall and Dark Side Of The Moon are running it close, but for me this is the definitive Floyd album. I remember the creepy sleeve art from my earliest childhood (my older brother had the record), long before I was aware of or could begin to understand the music. Later, at university, it would become my favourite depression-wallow music - and it still is, twenty years later (yes, maybe I should grow up).

Radiohead - The Bends
Their best album, no question. Don't give me OK Computer! This may not be as musically intricate, but I think overall the songs are stronger and the guitar sound is irresistibly grungy.

Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session
Recorded in a disused church in Toronto on a budget of around CAD$100, this is a wonderfully mellow and atmospheric album (a 'studio' album with a 'live' feel), with a great mix of original songs and classic covers - including what Lou Reed himself acknowledges as the best ever version of his Sweet Jane. I defy any man of musical sensitivity and heterosexual leanings not to fall in love with Margo Timmins after hearing this record.

Fleetwood Mac - Live in Chicago
This is something of a rarity these days. I've never been able to find it on CD (at least, not in quite the same form that I have it on vinyl), and if it's available at all, I suspect it may have been re-titled. It's a double-album studio jam session they made in the late '60s during their first incarnation as a blues band, with the great guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer. Just about everyone who was anyone in the Chicago blues scene - including giants like Walter Horton, Buddy Guy, and Otis Spann - sat in for a few tracks here and there. Probably the best blues album ever.

Chumbawamba - Tubthumping
One of the standout albums of the '90s - it's really a mystery how these guys have never produced anything else quite so remarkable. The title track has suffered from being overplayed, but every song on this album is catchy and distinctive, and the use of sound clips from British films and TV documentaries to link them - so often just a glib gimmick - is here very telling. After 10 years, this is still one of the albums that I most often go back to, rarely going more than a month without playing it.

Liz Phair - Exile In Guyville
Again, there's a strong nostalgic link for me with this one, since I first owned it on a tape copy given to me by a friend I visited in China in the Spring of 1994; it then accompanied me on the remainder of my round-the-world backpacking jaunt and so became the "soundtrack" of those memorable adventures. This is quite possibly the best debut album ever. If Ms Phair has a weakness, it is that she seems to be incapable of writing a song with fewer than 6 hooks in it.

Simon & Garfunkel - Greatest Hits
I admit it's a bit of a cheat to include compilation albums, but.... well, I don't really know any of their individual albums (Bridge Over Troubled Water, maybe? I think my parents used to own that.). Once again, there are deep emotional links to my childhood - this is probably the most progressive, un-conservative music my parents ever owned, and I was exposed to it (playing it for myself, on our fabulous Pye 'gramophone') from my toddling days. And I think these guys are up there alongside the Beatles for the strength of their catalogue, and for the universality of recognition these songs have achieved.

AC/DC - PowerAge
It is often objected that AC/DC just keep on making the same album over and over again. Well, nothing wrong with that - if the album is this good. Most of their albums have a few standout songs, but on this one I think every song is unusually strong. Downpayment Blues is my 'theme song' - "I know I ain't doin' much/ But doin' nothing means a lot to me". And Angus is, well, Angus: fast, dirty, and eminently bluesy. I fear he often doesn't get the respect he deserves from the music press because of the raw simplicity of the band's music and his madcap stage antics (Rolling Stone, I gather, only placed him 94th in its '100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time' list; I can't see how he isn't in the top 10 or 20.); for me, his phrasing and control of tone are just perfect - his playing isn't just a headbanging frenzy, it's supremely musical. He's one of the few people I would really love to be able to play like.

Tom Waits - Rain Dogs
This was the hardest choice of the lot. If I weren't observing self-imposed restrictions on this selection, I could quite easily have gone for 10 Waits albums. I fret slightly that this might be too 'obvious' a choice: it is probably his most 'commercial' piece of work, and I feel I perhaps ought to plump for something weirder or darker. I am mightily tempted by Blue Valentines (the first of his albums I ever bought, and a wonderful collection of stories) or Small Change (marvellously witty, but also deeply melancholic - it was on my record player almost constantly during my last year at university) or Frank's Wild Years or Bone Machine or..... But Rain Dogs just has so many good songs on it; and the sound of Marc Ribot's guitar is simply exquisite. With most of the other albums, I go through fads of playing them to death and then abandon them for a few months. Rain Dogs is pretty much constantly on my playlist.

And..... oh damn, I didn't get around to including a Pogues album. Why couldn't I have given myself 12 picks? Ah well - maybe I'll do an 'alternate lineup' in a few months......


Anonymous said...

Oh dear. And I thought I shared a lot of interests with you.

None of these mean anything at all to me except Simon & Garfunkel, and that is only because my son used Mrs Robinson in his stage production of The Graduate and I saw it with seven different Mrs Rs, once in Finnish.

I suppose it's an age thing. But your choice is more chronologically circumscribed than mine would be. Is there nothing you could live with that was not written in your lifetime?

Anonymous said...

P.S. Anyway, you can't have whole albums, that's cheating.

I mean, I wouldn't be allowed the whole of Die schöne Müllerin, I'd have to choose one song.

Froog said...

Well, I make my own rules. Under Roy Plomley's formula, I'd have to stick to 8 individual pieces of music, wouldn't I? Although it always seemed to me a bit unfair that you could pick a whole symphony or concerto, which almost is the equivalent of a rock album.(Or am I wrong on that? Are you only allowed 1 movement of a longer classical work??)

I did point out at the start that this was only a rock and pop selection. And this sort of music does tend to be of its time, very much tied to the pop culture frame of reference of the period when it was first released (or when you first came to know it). So much of the enjoyment is tied up in personal nostalgia that I think it's difficult to get quite as passionate about music from earlier eras. Bluesy Fleetwood Mac and Simon & Garfunkel are "before my time", and early Queen pretty much so - but all the other picks are things I grew up with through my younger adulthood. I like the Beatles and The Rolling Stones and the other great groups of the '60s, but I just don't feel quite as attached to them as I do to the music that happened during my lifetime.

However, I could produce equally exhaustive lists on jazz,blues, comic songs, choral music, and more.

Anonymous said...

Yes, sorry, I hadn't noticed that you were choosing only from rock and pop. No wonder the list didn't mean anything to me.

Just delete my comments and forget I made them.

Froog said...

Ah, now, I don't think I'm going to do that. Rarely does one enjoy such opportunities to castigate a regular reader for his inattentiveness!

And it did prompt some further reflections from me on why rock music is so tied to individual histories, to particular moments in time.