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.
- 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.
- Keren Ann, Nolita
I admit it, I have a soft spot for breathy French singers and Keren Ann is among my favorite, even if she’s Dutch/Israeli not French. Though she later went on to enjoy crossover success in English, these hybrid French/English albums are among my favorite. Nolita is a gem.
- Beck, Sea Change
Beck turned off the gimmicks on this acoustic break-up album. Beautiful from beginning to end.
- 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?”
- Björk, Homogenic
Her best album. Pulsing electronica, brilliant writing.
- 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.
- 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.
- James Brown, 20 All-Time Greatest Hits! [compilation]
I bought this compilation in 1991 and played it constantly. Life changing.
- 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.
- Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore, Naked Lunch (soundtrack)
Mesmerizing. Ornette at his finest. Such an odd movie though.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Brian Eno, Ambient 4/On Land [blog]
My sleeping music for almost twenty years. Eno. Genius of ambient.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Michael Jackson, Thriller
Do I really need to say anything?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Massive Attack, Mezzanine
More ’90s trip-hop. Includes “Teardrop,” which was later used as the theme to the TV show, House.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Arvo Pärt, Tabula Rasa [blog]
Every film composer steals from Pärt. Just listen to “Frateres” or “Für Alina” and you’ll see why. Most of this music was written in the ’70s, but it sounds completely new even now.
- 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.
- Portishead, Dummy
More ’90s trip-hop. Hard to believe this came out in 1994, years before the genre became popular. Still sounds modern.
- 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.
- 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.
- Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation
- Stereolab, Dots and Loops
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.
- Talking Heads, Remain In Light
I like this one better than the more popular Speaking in Tongues. Has more of that Eno thing happening.
- Tricky, Pre-Millennium Tension
The last of my ’90s trip-hop favorites. “Makes Me Want To Die,” dude…
- Cassandra Wilson, Blue Light ’till Dawn
1993 in Berkeley and this album on loop.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Lily Allen, Alright, Still
- Antony and the Johnsons, I Am A Bird Now [blog]
- The Bird and The Bee, Recreational Love
- Black Orpheus, The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
- David Bowie, Changes [compilation]
- Brazilian Girls, New York City
- Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians, Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars
- Can, Flow Motion
- Johnny Cash, I Walk The Line
- Ornette Coleman, Something Else!!!
- John Coltrane, Crescent
- Death Cab for Cutie, Plans
- Lhasa De Sela, La Llorona [blog]
- Depeche Mode, Violator
- Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
- Thomas Dolby, Golden Age of Wireless
- Brian Eno, Ambient 1/Music for Airports
- The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
- Peter Gabriel, So
- Herbie Hancock, Mr. Hands [blog]
- Donny Hathaway, Live (1972) [blog]
- PJ Harvey, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
- Billie Holiday, Lady in Satin
- Dave Holland, Extensions
- Jana Hunter, Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom
- Hank Jones, Upon Reflection: The Music Of Hank Jones
- Icehouse, Icehouse [blog]
- k.d. lang, Ingénue
- Curtis Mayfield, Superfly
- Lyle Mays, Lyle Mays
- Pat Metheny Group, Offramp
- Pat Metheny, Bright Size Life
- Thelonious Monk, Underground
- Morcheeba, Who Can You Trust?
- Me’shell Ndegeocello, Comfort Woman
- Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over The Sea
- Oumou Sangare, Worotan
- Pinback, Pinback
- Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here
- Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet
- Radiohead, Pablo Honey
- Todd Rundgren, With a Twist…
- St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
- Tears For Fears, The Hurting
- Tin Hat Trio, Helium
- Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico
- Patrick Watson, Adventures in Your Own Backyard
- Stevie Wonder, Music of My Mind
- Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life
- 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 😉
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.