Saturday, January 07, 2006

20 Favorite CDs -- The Full Story

THE BEACH BOYS/Pet Sounds -- One of my favorite pleasures is the comic strip Doonesbury, which I firmly believe combines the social satire/awareness of Charles Dickens with the ongoing pleasures of a TV show and the political bite of Mencken to create one of the most lasting, revealing and remarkable chronicles of any age. (It's been ongoing for 30 years and shows no sign of stopping. Future historians wanting to know what our times were like would do well to start with it. So would future readers looking for entertainment of the highest order.) And I was never a particular Beach Boys fan till a gay character on Doonesbury who'd been around for many years came back into the picture because he had AIDS. Slowly, over many months (if not longer), we returned to him and saw his progress in the 80s as he got sicker and sicker. This coincided with the rise of the CD, when fans of particular artists waited with bated breath for certain classic albums to finally come out on the new format. The release of the Beatles, for example, made headlines. And the man dying of AIDS in this comic strip ultimately had one goal: to live long enough to hear Pet Sounds on CD. I don't know how long Trudeau stretched that storyline out. But in 1990 on a Tuesday on the very day that Pet Sounds hit stores, Doonesbury simply showed the empty bedroom where the man had been seen in his final days, a cool breeze blowing in the curtains and Pet Sounds playing on his CD player. The mix of the comic strip world and the real one (hey, I was running out that day to buy the CD too) was stunning and moving and heartbreaking. Needless to say, the album is worthy of that moment, gorgeous and reflective and exhilarating and sophisticated and sad, often in the same song.

BEASTIE BOYS/Paul's Boutique -- Opened my mind once and for all to how bold and experimental and hilarious and complex rap music and hip hop could be.

THE BEATLES/Revolver -- Next week it'll be the White Album or Abbey Road or the unfairly ignored Sgt. Pepper. But today it's this once. The greatest rock band of all time, obviously.

THE BLUE NILE/A Walk Across The Rooftops -- a crazy little UK band with a crazy backstory. Apparently, the guys in the band were regular folk with day jobs. But one of them working for a turntable manufacturer (Linn, I believe) got a tiny budget to record an LP to demonstrate the fidelity of a high end turntable model. They took the money and knowing it was literally being recorded for themselves (the LP would only be pressed with hundreds of copies to be distributed to stereo shops), they made a deeply personal, quirky but lovely album. People looking to buy a stereo kept saying, "What album is that?" and "Where can I buy it?" A record label finally got wind of it and put it out and it became a critic's darling in the UK. Still wildly unknown in the US even after the album came out, it was perfect, late night, lights out fare filled with echo-y passages, distant rumbles and a world-weary air. It also contained one of the most mature romantic lines I have ever heard: "Stay, and I will understand you. I will understand you." Wow, what a promise. The Blue Nile became relatively big (huge in the UK, actually) with their second album, but they represent the rock fanatic's pleasure in cults, in discovering an album, an artist (Captain Beefheart, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, etc.) that is yours and yours alone, something that 99.99% of the world will absolutely never hear about and if they did they wouldn't get it.

BOB DYLAN/Highway 61 Revisited -- I already liked Dylan but this is the one that did me in, this is the CD I can still remember listening to for the first time, driving in my car and playing the CD on my stereo and almost driving off the road shaking with laughter over the lyrics in "Highway 61 Revisited." I'd never limit Dylan to one trait, but God can he be funny.

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL/Idlewild -- Strangely, live music hasn't been a big part of my rock n roll life. I've certainly been to my share of concerts, but I'd instinctively rather buy five more CDs than one concert ticket. But I got a double pleasure one night, driving to Atlanta with Denise to see the Pogues in concert in the heyday (a great show) and Denise insisting I listen to this album in its entirety, and with attention. I immediately recognized the cover -- I'd picked it up in the store and almost bought it once or twice because the cover and song titles appealed (a highly underrated method for discovering new music) and she played it for me and then she played it again because I insisted. So often, people who love music will foolishly try to get their more casual friends to listen to an album or even a song and you'll play it and they'll start to listen and then begin talking or ask where you want to go to dinner or wander off and read something while still "listening." I wouldn't do that and Denise knew it. So "Idlewild" is the pleasure of a friend buttonholing you and saying, "You've GOT to listen to this." And then the lovely female singer (Tracey Thorn) was replaced in the middle by Ben Watts singing the lovely "The Night I Heard Caruso Sing." The bastard saved the best song for himself and I was sold.

MARVIN GAYE/What's Going On/Let's Get It On two-fer CD -- A rarely to be repeated event, this was a CD release of two classic Marvin Gaye albums on one CD, making it at the time about the best buy in the world. Nowadays they're split up again with deluxe editions that offer unnecessary extras. They'll never blow people's minds the way I flipped out over this one CD and the spacey, trippy, hippy gorgeous hymns on What's Going On, only to have that album immediately followed by the insanely funky and naughty and sexy grooves of Let's Get It On. So THIS is where Prince came from.

MADNESS/Keep Moving -- a terrific British pop band that, in my mind, got better and better, even though they practically amounted to one hit wonders in the US. They had another album or two after this one and then live CDs and beloved icon status in the UK, but this was my favorite album, a keen, diverse album that stands up remarkably well. I'm fairly alone, but I think it's their masterpiece and a worthy heir to the Kinks. And it exemplifies one of the cardinal pleasures of music buying, a pleasure fairly absent in the days of the Internet. I bought the album on cassette which contained two extra tracks and the album in an entirely different running order than the LP. To my horror, when it came out on CD, it was the LP version -- 12 songs instead of 14 and the "wrong" running order. Thus followed years -- and I do mean years -- of fruitless searching in record bins, always wondering if maybe a new CD had come out or maybe it was available on import or maybe when I went to London I'd find it there and on and on it went for YEARS, an almost automatic searching in the Ms to see if there was a new version of "Keep Moving" (along with automatic searches for certain albums by Richard and Linda Thompson and a host of other artists with an album or career that had fallen into the cracks) and on and on it went until one day, without even expecting it, I was casually roaming the aisles of Tower Records in NYC and reflexively searched the Madness section and there it was, Keep Moving on CD with all 14 tracks and in the proper order...and it was a bargain CD release for less than $10. I would have paid $50 gladly. How will kids in the future know the pleasure of this when they'll be able to download any album ever recorded in the history of man in about ten seconds?

JONI MITCHELL/Blue & VAN MORRISON/Moondance -- A number of artists not on this list would be here if I listed my Top 20 CDs by virtue of how often I've played them -- Billy Joel and Jimmy Buffet and Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits and The Big Chill soundtrack and Roy Orbison's greatest hits rerecorded for Virgin. The list goes on. But here are two albums obscurely linked in my mind and I have played them so often it's sometimes hard to really listen to them and appreciate how brilliant they are. What's most remarkable is their flexibility -- in the middle of the day, late at night, sitting quietly and listening, in the midst of a party, driving down the highway in the moonlight, sitting on the beach, happy or sad or wanting to feel one or the other -- these albums do the job. They are endlessly repeatable and never grow tired or stale. They're too good. And they'll probably be playing in my head when I lay dying. It's the music I've lived by.

RANDY NEWMAN/Sail Away -- Here's another distinct pleasure: the artist who leads me to so many others. An utterly original work -- it sounds like a pop album via Stephen Foster -- with songs that might have been standards a hundred years ago, some of them sentimental, some of them biting, some of them cheap laughs that turn out knowing. It's a WISE album. And Randy Newman led me to Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks and then Pet Sounds and Rufus Wainwright and a thousand other quirky little artists.

PREFAB SPROUT/Swoon -- My introduction to swag. I first heard about this British pop band in Rolling Stone, which listed them with Lone Justice and eight others as Bands To Watch (their albums were almost all due out well in the future). Then I went to college and stumbled into an open house at the school newspaper. Did I want to review an album? Sure. The arts editor told me to choose from a stack and Prefab Sprout immediately jumped to my attention. (Who could forget a name like that?) I took it home and played it and it was GREAT -0- quirky and odd and witty and catchy and quite original. Was this what it was like to be an entertainment writer. People gave you free albums and you got to hear terrific music before anyone else? I was hooked.

PRINCE/Purple Rain -- not even my favorite Prince album (that would be Parade or 1999) and certainly no album with a song called "Computer Blue" is likely to be perfect. But it was exciting. Some people hate it when their artist explodes in popularity. As long as the music is still great (obviously), I think it's exciting. You're watching a major talent swing for the fences and connect. Listening to this album (the same summer Springsteen exploded with Born in the USA), I thought selling 8 or 10 million copies of a sensational album was about the most thrilling thing imaginable. "When Doves Cry" -- still a remarkably original song -- was on the radio and delivered a jolt of electricity every time, the movie Purple Rain was in the theaters (when he performed "The Lonely Ones" it was roof-raising) and Prince was wowing me in concert. Rock n roll could take over the world or at least dominate pop culture and when the artist was this good, who could be sad about that?

RADIOHEAD/OK Computer -- I never got to hear Dark Side of the Moon for the first time without KNOWING I was hearing Dark Side Of The Moon. This was my second chance and I loved it. Like Talking Heads with Remain in Light, this was the sound of an artist at their peak and incapable of taking a wrong step. I hear really good, even great albums all the time. But I don't often hear something that is immediately and clearly an undeniable, stone-cold classic. This was one of them.

R.E.M./Murmur -- patience, grasshopper. This album taught me the importance of taking my time and trusting my instincts. Huge hosannas greeted this album. I played it and liked it (almost out of a sense of obligation; I was probably too embarrassed to admit it didn't wow me). But yeah, it certainly wasn't something I'd be dismissive about just because it didn't blow me away. But I put it aside after playing it once or twice. I knew I'd come back to it once I was ready to listen again with open ears. A year passed and Reckoning was coming out and getting more raves and I was ready to listen again. The second it began, I remembered the notes, the feel, the moods of the album as if I'd been playing it over and over and over again for the past year rather than filing it way. (This would only happen a handful of times in the future and always indicated an album that would become a favorite.) The album was engrained in me and I immediately felt a passionate interest in it. What was I thinking before not to have fallen immediately in love with it? Who cared? I loved it now.

PAUL SIMON/Graceland -- Another album that was a clear and immediate world-beater, even though I wasn't thrilled with the last two songs. Now it's such a familiar object, it's hard to remember -- but this sucker sounded STRANGE when it came out. Exotic and weird and thrilling and completely pop in the best sense of the word. No album before or since has opened up my eyes to a world of music like this one. First I bought the African compilation album "The Indestructible Beat of Soweto" and then an album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and then I was off to the races. The world music section of the record store would forever be part of my routine from then on.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN/Nebraska -- I'm one of the 17 people whose first Springsteen album they anticipated and bought was Nebraska, the black and white still photograph that told a universal story of love and despair and hope by being so specific, by introducing me to the idea of a brand new used car, by sounding so ancient and old and timeless and contemporary. It sounded important without sounding pretentious or highfalutin. I knew it mattered. And then beyond all that it was 12 great songs, the best 12 Springsteen would ever string together. No better music when it's late at night and you're driving down the highway just a little too fast.

RICHARD AND LINDA THOMPSON/Shoot Out The Lights -- I grew up in South Florida where the radio sucked. No one who ever grew up there fell in love with new music by listening to the radio. At best it would make you sick of new music -- not too bad a proposition if you needed a push to go discover some classic albums of the past. But the radio (or lack of it) from my youth led me to depend on reviews more than anything else to know what I should be listening to. Now of course I string together a hundred different sources: Billboard and Entertainment Weekly and three or four newspapers and music magazines and the British magazines and the British weeklys. If a bunch of them start raving about a band or use code words like "Nick Drake" or "Richard Thompson" or "Randy Newman" to describe an artist, then I know I've got to give them a listen. But back when I was young, one source alone was all I needed: Rolling Stone. If an album got four stars from them, I knew it needed to be heard. And perhaps the most significant review I ever read in my life was for a reissue of the collected works of Richard and Linda Thompson. It was the lead review (unusual for a reissue) and it gave almost all of the albums four or even five stars. The reviewer asked me to imagine some poor fool who was unfamiliar with the collected works of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones and then said I was that fool for not knowing the music of Richard and Linda Thompson. Their brilliant Pour Down Like Silver was "yet another jewel in their gem-heavy crown." (I'm quoting from memory but wouldn't be at all surprised if I was word-for-word.) It was the rave to end all raves and I was sent practically running to the nearest record store. I bought Shoot Out The Lights and it would take a while to sink in (just like Murmur) but once it sunk in it was bone-deep and there for life. And that led to all sorts of pleasures: other artists on the Hannibal label like Nick Drake and Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Fairport Convention and of course Richard Thompson and on to other music produced by Joe Boyd and on and on. It was a rich vein, the mother lode in many ways and I'm still carting out riches.

U2/The Joshua Tree -- Like I said, some people get annoyed when their artist gets so popular that even the fan's mother has heard of them and can sing along with one of their songs. I find it thrilling when done right and few artists seized the crown of Biggest Rock Band in the World with the panache and passion of U2. Tremendously entertaining live, but my God, you put on this album and just knew, instantly knew, they'd conquered the world.

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT/Want One -- separate from massive worldwide fame is the similar pleasure of seeing an artist blossom into a world class talent. Wainwright debuted with a terrific album, stumbled just a tad with his second CD and then delivered...a masterpiece. It's wonderful to believe someone has unlimited potential and then watch them fulfill it, even if the rest of the world hasn't quite caught up yet.

DIONNE WARWICK/The Dionne Warwick Collection: Her All-Time Greatest Hits -- And in the end, I don't know anything. There is so much music out there, so much music I haven't paid attention to but know I'll love (whether it's the Kinks or Eric B and Rakim or Mott The Hoople), that I have to remember there's so much more than even what I expect if I'll keep an open mind. I thought I knew what I thought of Dionne Warwick, thanks to "That's What Friends Are For" and "Alfie." But I hadn't a clue until I bought this greatest hits cd and realized she had one remarkable song after another and that Burt Bacharach was an amazingly complex writer. I know how obvious this sounds, but they weren't quite in the public eye the way they (and especially Bacharach) have been in the last ten years. And of course everyone has to discover every artist for themselves, whether it's the Beatles or Mott the Hoople or Tom Waits or The Band and to every 15 year old out there, those bands are going to blow their minds. And you have to keep that mind open, because there's a lot more wonderful music out there than you can possibly imagine, no matter how wide-ranging your tastes are (wait til you hear the gentle, sexy songs of Mississippi John Hurt or listen, really listen to Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western) and no matter how much you listen to. And sometimes great music is staring you right in the face and you don't even know it until you stop thinking you know it all. And just listen.

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