What¬†was supposed to be an off-the-cuff post turned into a multi-week, all-consuming research project. If you make it to the end of this, you will conclude two things: 1) that¬†I love music and 2) that I’m completely, hopelessly anal. I celebrate both qualities.

I’m turning 50 this summer. I naively thought that¬†putting¬†together¬†a list of the¬†50¬†albums¬†that have defined me¬†over these many (MANY) years would be a fairly straight forward task. I like making lists. I like records. Peas in a pod.¬†And the process started out¬†smoothly enough, but each time¬†I reached #50, I’d suddenly remember one or two that I’d forgotten. “Oh no, what about¬†Purple Rain?”

Then there were 60 and 70 and 80 and yes, I’m that OCD.

I decided to set some rules (I like rules). Namely, I made myself actually listen to each record, not just bask in its memory. It still had to sound good to my soon-to-be-fifty-year-old ears.

It’s¬†probably true that¬†many of our once enamored perspectives falter¬†under¬†the scrutiny of experience. Especially if you’re being honest with yourself. Not surprisingly, my¬†initial list began to unravel. Did I¬†love Purple Rain because of the music, or because it came out the summer after I¬†graduated high school? And oh, what a summer it was. The late night cruising with my best friend. The tumult of girlfriends. Beyond the¬†lyrics¬†of “Darling Nikki,” did I really care about the song?¬†And more importantly,¬†when¬†was¬†the last time I actually listened to that record? A decade? This may sound scandalous, but his¬†recent death notwithstanding, I hadn’t heard Prince in¬†years. That was the first clue.

The second clue:¬†I no longer¬†even¬†own a copy of Purple Rain. I concede that in today’s world¬†the concept of¬†ownership¬†is murky at best.¬†Just visit YouTube. But still. I don’t have the LP/CD in my house. It’s not part of my contemporary consciousness. Do I really want to be stuck listening to it for all eternity on this mythical desert island? And furthermore, is that best friend or girlfriend someone I would even want to see now?

Conclusion, I¬†nixed Nikki. The same happened for¬†20 or 30 other “essential albums” too. Sorry, Beatles.

This led to the next¬†quandary.¬†Do I list the albums that influenced my life or just¬†those¬†that survived it? Lyle Mays’s debut record was basically all I listened to for about five¬†years. Today it sounds like a really great album, for 1986. The emotional reaction I have hearing it is still powerful, but would I ever put it on a playlist for friends? Probably not. Ditto Thomas Dolby.

And while I’m at it, what about the obvious choices found¬†on every major Best Of¬†list. Where¬†are the classic rock staples like¬†Zeppelin and The Stones? Simple answer: not part of my personal landscape; not represented.

I allowed Greatest Hits collections. When I was young, compilations introduced me to¬†David Bowie and Miles Davis. I’m keeping a few¬†of them in here for that very reason.

What remains is impossible to rank. Each one is so unique.

Disclaimer:¬†It’s assumed that I’ve forgotten at least two amazing, essential albums.

Disclaimer:¬†It’s assumed that¬†you will passionately disagree with some of¬†my omissions.

Without further preamble, here’s my weird list.

The 50:

  1. Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else
    Miles was a guest artist on this album, very rare; he ended up turning¬†the session into¬†his own. The intro to “Autumn Leaves” is one of the greatest in jazz, as is Cannonball’s solo on that tune.
  2. The Bird and The Bee, The Bird and The Bee [blog]
    This LA duo was¬†the best thing to happen in the first decade¬†of the new century. Smart pop. Catchy, unique. Love them to death. Any of their albums could have gone here, but I picked the first one because of its¬†impact. “Would you be my fucking boyfriend?”
  3. Björk, Homogenic
    Her best album. Pulsing electronica, brilliant writing.
  4. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
    Oh, what is it about being stuck in a cabin in Wisconsin with a guitar and a microphone? The mangled French. The Good Winter. So much mythology surrounds Bon Iver, yet the beauty of the music never wanes.
  5. David Bowie, Black Star
    His final recording and¬†my favorite of his catalog. It’s really just a jazz album with Bowie’s incredible vocals riding over the music. Most of all, you¬†feel the pain of¬†his terminal prognosis. Heart-wrenching and perfect. RIP.
  6. James Brown, 20 All-Time Greatest Hits! [compilation]
    I bought this compilation in 1991 and played it constantly. Life changing.
  7. The Cars, The Cars [blog]
    Reminds me of junior high school, but their ’50s-influenced new wave sound still sounds fresh today. And I love Ocasek’s lyrics. Side B¬†of this album is presented in¬†a continuous segue, a nod to the album rock universe of the ’70s.
  8. Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore, Naked Lunch (soundtrack)
    Mesmerizing. Ornette at his finest. Such an odd movie though.
  9. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
    I know it seems cliche to include this, but it really changed music. I re-listened to it the other day to make sure. Yep, it’s just that good.
  10. Marc Copland & Vic Juris, Double Play
    Copland is not a household name but this NYC pianist looms large over the way I approach playing. A true harmonic innovator. What he does in a duo situation is startling. Check out his other duo recordings.
  11. Chick Corea, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs
    This is THE piano trio recording. Every jazz pianists swears by it (or should!). Chick set a bar here that no one has yet to reach.
  12. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, So Far [compilation]
    I first heard this album at a¬†fellow Berkeley¬†grad student’s apartment in ’92. There were bongs involved. I went out and bought it the next day and not only did it still sound good, it became one of my favorite CDs. These guys were on a different level from the other hippie¬†bands of the time. I still love it. “Guinevere,” my goodness…
  13. The Cure, Disintegration
    My angsty 20s owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Smith and co. That remorse-laden wall of sound, oh how I used to play it on loop at home, in the car, in my Walkman. Later I would stand backstage at a New York City venue¬†“cyber streaming” their show to an early Internet. I wandered their dressing rooms before they arrived. Candles had been pre-lit. Draped rugs and throws covered every inch of the otherwise sterile confines of the club’s netherworld. I never met them or even saw the concert, but I still have a DAT of the show sitting on a shelf, which I ripped to a ZIP drive, neither of which I can play anymore.
  14. D’Angelo, Voodoo
    The funkiest album of the new generation. Charlie Hunter appears on “Spanish Harlem” with ?uestlove. Nothing like it. Unfortunately, D’Angelo fell¬†into a wormhole of drug abuse after its release–for years he was completely AWOL. Thankfully, he’s back again with a new album.
  15. Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine (live)
    Herbie’s piano intro to the title track is one of the most beautiful things ever recorded. This is the companion album to Four and More, this being the set of ballads from the same concert. Both are great.
  16. Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism [blog]
    This may be my favorite pop/rock album ever. Thanks to Bill Shunn for turning me on to it. The follow up, Plans, is just as extraordinary.
  17. Deee Lite, World Clique
    I remember sitting in my friend’s apartment in¬†1990 when¬†I first heard this. She said, “they sound like the future.”¬†I agreed and bought it and played it a million times. Sure, they were just co-opting Maceo and Bootsy, in fact those guys are on this album, but so what? Timeless and fun.
  18. Brian Eno, Ambient 4/On Land [blog]
    My sleeping music for almost twenty years. Eno. Genius of ambient.
  19. Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel
    Mind-expanding modern classical. This work was written for the opening of Houston’s Rothko Chapel. I attended the 40th anniversary concert where they performed it again. Turn the lights out if you listen to this. It’s not background music.
  20. The Fixx, Reach The Beach
    I had my wisdom teeth out in high school. I got an infection, ended up getting¬†really sick. I remember lying¬†in bed with a cassette deck on my chest playing this record over and over. 30 years later I still listen to it regularly. The best of ’80s new wave.
  21. Peter Gabriel, Passion: Music For Last Temptation of Christ (soundtrack)
    Gabriel essentially opened the door for so-called World Music with this album. Passion is a sonic masterpiece. From beginning to end, it holds you locked in its hypnotic spell.
  22. Glenn Gould, The Goldberg Variations (1955)
    Including this is also a bit¬†cliche. Yet once¬†again, it’s popular for a reason. Bach’s 30-part variation work is incredible on its own, but with Gould’s electrifying performance¬†you really get a feel for the¬†arc of the thing–the relations of the¬†tempo and themes throughout. This was Gould’s first recording. His last in 1992 was a reprise of this album done with a more somber, thoughtful touch. Worth listening to them both.
  23. Herbie Hancock, Empyrean Isles
    Herbie’s solo albums from the ’60s, back when he was strictly a jazz player, are all jazz classics. But this¬†one¬†really showcases the drive in his playing. The compositions are also¬†a bit deeper than those on the more popular Maiden Voyage.
  24. Herbie Hancock, Thrust [blog]
    Released on the heels of his wildly popular¬†Headhunters, Thrust is another in¬†the highly-imitated jazz-funk genre that he essentially invented. I just happen to like these tunes better. Two of them, “Actual Proof” and “Butterfly,” have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years.
  25. Shirley Horn, Here’s To Life [blog]
    In a word, lush. If you haven’t heard¬†this album, turn out the lights and play the whole thing, preferably with the one you love.
  26. Hospitality, Hospitality
    Amazing¬†pop music from 2012. The co-leader, armed with a¬†PhD in music composition from Princeton, cites influences like Morton Feldman (see above) and other heady classical composers. I had no idea about that when I started listening to them and neither will you. It’s infectious and direct. My wife and I swear by these guys. So much fun.
  27. Ivy, Apartment Life
    Adam Schlesinger hit it big writing the music for the movie Music and Lyrics. But his¬†knack for writing great pop music actually started a decade earlier with this quirky NYC pop trio. One of my favorite bands from the ’90s.
  28. Michael Jackson, Thriller
    Do I really need to say anything?
  29. Keith Jarrett, Changes
    Though it’s now out¬†of print, this three track album is one of my all-time favorite jazz recordings. The title track is a thirty minute trio improvisation. In listening to it the other day, I found myself singing along with most of it. Jarrett, love him or hate him, is a complete¬†genius.
  30. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Sings Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs [blog]
    Five classical vocal pieces set to the poems of Neruda. Harrowing for reasons explained in the blog link.
  31. Cliff Martinez, Solaris (soundtrack) 
    It’s out of print now, but I linked it to YouTube where you can listen to the whole thing. Martinez, formerly the drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, has emerged as an innovative film composer know for¬†mixing electronics with percussion–this soundtrack features the obscure¬†Hung Drum. The movie was good, the soundtrack was far better.¬†Ambient and¬†hypnotic. I always recognize¬†his music now, which thankfully is getting used regularly in Hollywood.
  32. Massive Attack, Mezzanine
    More ’90s¬†trip-hop. Includes “Teardrop,” which was later used as the theme to the TV show, House.
  33. Me’shell Ndegeocello, Peace Beyond Passion
    1997. My first job in NYC. My cubicle mate was this kid from Brooklyn who played this CD all the time. I was like, um, can I see that? Ndegeocello invented her own style of music here, a variation on soul and jazz that is now being repurposed to greater commercial success by artists like Robert Glasper.
  34. Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Himself
    Monk’s solo piano playing is a class of its own. What he does¬†with one chord and a¬†pregnant¬†pause¬†is worth a thousand double time be-bop lines. I’ve never understood people who don’t like Monk.
  35. Stina Nordenstam, And She Closed Her Eyes
    Out of print now, I think? Stina enjoyed¬†a small amount of success when one of these songs appeared¬†on the soundtrack to¬†Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 strange Romeo¬†+¬†Juliet, which is¬†how we discovered her. So happy we did. There was this fall day in 1997 in NYC when Steph and I sat in the living room listening to this record quietly. It was raining. Afterwards, well I’m not sure what happened. But I think it involved restarting the record. Stina has dropped off the radar. Her last public appearance was in 2007.
  36. Oasis, What’s The Story Morning Glory?
    I hear this and I remember driving around Queens with my stoner friend in his VW Rabbit. He had this album on cassette and would listen to it in silence, then afterwards, tell me about the songs he was writing.
  37. Arvo Pärt, Tabula Rasa [blog]
    Every film composer steals from¬†P√§rt. Just listen to “Frateres” or¬†“F√ľr Alina” and you’ll see why. Most of this music was written in the ’70s, but it sounds completely new even now.
  38. The Police, Regatta De Blanc
    Before Sting was an soft rock crooner, he was a really good bass player. This is the Police when they still sounded like a band. Rhythmic throughout thanks to Stewart Copeland’s punchy beats, Andy Summers’ guitar, and in no small part, Sting’s bass lines. It all works. Great writing too.
  39. Portishead, Dummy
    More ’90s trip-hop. Hard to believe this came out in 1994, years before the genre became popular. Still sounds modern.
  40. Radiohead, Kid A
    Kid A is a classic, blah blah blah. It marks their transition into electronica, blah blah blah. I debated between this one and their debut, Pablo Honey. Both are great but for different reasons.
  41. Rush, Moving Pictures
    I put this on recently and BLAM, I was 15 again. This album got inside my head in such a major way in high school. It’s a guilty pleasure, but I’m owning it. Limelight and Tom Sawyer and YYZ. I mean, what else is there to say?
  42. Horace Silver, Trio (and spotlight on drums) [blog]
    Paired down jazz trio playing. Silver¬†imparts so much rhythm in his playing. He was also a master at weaving in “quotes,” the tradition of referencing other songs during a solo.
  43. Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation
  44. Stereolab, Dots and Loops
    Breakthrough electronica¬†“post-rock,” i.e. a bit trippy, textural,¬†leans¬†instrumental. Whatever you call¬†them, Stereolab is cool. They sound as original today as they did twenty years ago.
  45. Talking Heads, Remain In Light
    I like this one better than the more popular Speaking in Tongues. Has more of that Eno thing happening.
  46. Tricky, Pre-Millennium Tension
    The last of my ’90s trip-hop favorites. “Makes Me Want To Die,” dude…
  47. Cassandra Wilson, Blue Light ’till Dawn
    1993 in Berkeley and this album on loop.
  48. Wings, Band On The Run
    Recorded in Nigeria with just Paul and Denny Laine (and Linda too). Paul played drums on this album! I remember being a youngster and hearing “Jet” for the first time. Still sounds fresh.
  49. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions
    I debated which of the three or four early ’70s Stevie albums would go here. Decided on this one, but it could just as well have been¬†Songs in the Key of Life, an album I bought the day it came out in 1976 (I was ten. Yes, I’m old as fuck).
  50. Larry Young, Unity
    IMO, the best of the jazz organ albums. Larry Young was a modernist, unlike the more traditional and infinitely more popular Jimmy Smith. Unity features Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw and Elvin. What a band.

Naturally, I made a playlist called The 50¬†on Spotify¬†of those that are available. For those that aren’t¬†(out of print or restricted by artist), I linked them to¬†YouTube above.

Sorry, but I can’t quit yet.

Here’s the 50¬†that almost made it. I felt guilty. I had to list them anyway. So much for restraint. They’re all really great albums, though. Besides, with¬†50 swelling to 100, I figure¬†I just increased¬†my life expectancy.

  1. Lily Allen, Alright, Still
  2. Antony and the Johnsons, I Am A Bird Now [blog]
  3. The Bird and The Bee, Recreational Love
  4. Beck, Sea Change
  5. David Bowie, Changes [compilation]
  6. Brazilian Girls, New York City
  7. Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians, Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars
  8. Can, Flow Motion
  9. Johnny Cash, I Walk The Line
  10. Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas
  11. Ornette Coleman, Something Else!!!
  12. John Coltrane, Crescent
  13. Death Cab for Cutie, Plans
  14. Lhasa De Sela, La Llorona [blog]
  15. Depeche Mode, Violator
  16. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
  17. Thomas Dolby, Golden Age of Wireless
  18. Brian Eno, Ambient 1/Music for Airports
  19. Peter Gabriel, So
  20. Herbie Hancock, Mr. Hands [blog]
  21. Donny Hathaway, Live (1972) [blog]
  22. PJ Harvey, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
  23. Billie Holiday, Lady in Satin
  24. Dave Holland, Extensions
  25. Jana Hunter, Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom
  26. Hank Jones, Upon Reflection: The Music Of Hank Jones
  27. Icehouse, Icehouse [blog]
  28. k.d. lang, Ingénue
  29. Curtis Mayfield, Superfly
  30. Lyle Mays, Lyle Mays
  31. Pat Metheny Group, Offramp
  32. Pat Metheny, Bright Size Life
  33. Thelonious Monk, Underground
  34. Morcheeba, Who Can You Trust?
  35. Me’shell Ndegeocello, Comfort Woman
  36. Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over The Sea
  37. Oumou Sangare, Worotan
  38. Pinback, Pinback
  39. Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here
  40. Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet
  41. Radiohead, Pablo Honey
  42. Todd Rundgren, With a Twist…
  43. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
  44. Tears For Fears, The Hurting
  45. Tin Hat Trio, Helium
  46. Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico
  47. Patrick Watson, Adventures in Your Own Backyard
  48. Stevie Wonder, Music of My Mind
  49. Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life
  50. Yesway, Yesway

Like I said, 1) loves music, 2) is totally anal.


I’ve really enjoyed revisiting a lifetime of music in¬†writing this post. In the end,¬†I started to observe¬†a basic pattern in what survived. The good stuff for me has its own¬†atmosphere. It’s hypnotic, transportive,¬†sturdy. I can do little else when I listen to these albums, i.e.,¬†I’ve gotten very little done this week. Well worth it though¬†ūüėČ

Okay, to¬†reward you for reading this far, I have a present for you. Actually, it’s a present to yourself.¬†Undertake this¬†same exercise and post about it. You may be surprised by what you learn. And also, I’ll feel less like a total music nerd¬†if you do the same.