Desert Island Discs

Ah! With summer here, thoughts naturally turn to . . . being stranded on a desert island. That might not be such a bad situation if you're marooned with Penelope Cruz (as in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean installment), but for our purposes it heralds that deathless chestnut beloved of writers short on time or ideas: If you were stuck on a desert island, what [music, books, films, etc.] would you want with you?


Last summer, in my day job, I posed these questions to my colleagues for their consideration during their free time. We covered movies, television shows, books, and music. Of the four, music turned out to be the hardest to choose, according to the feedback I received. As more than one person noted, music has a deeply emotional pull, and memories associated with music can be highly evocative. Furthermore, after spirited discussion, we decided that respondents could provide their choices in any or all of the following three categories: Ten albums, 25 songs, and 10 playlists of up to 15 songs each (that last being of course the most bang for your buck).


For now, let's stick with ten albums. I realize I'm showing my age, not only in my choices below, but in selecting the album format—does anyone actually buy albums any more? And while deep soul-searching went into my selections, I offer them here to spur your responses: Which ten music albums would you want with you on a desert island?


The technicalities: No restriction on the musical form (rock, soul, jazz, classical, etc.). Multi-disc sets are fine if they are collected under one title (so, yes, the ZZ Top Six-Pack would be one choice even as it includes six separately-titled albums). However, stating that you would want "Everything by [fill in the blank with the artist whose collected works you could not live without]" is just plain laziness.


To stir your creative juices, here are DDT's ten desert island albums, in reverse order of like-itude:


10. The Great Ballets (Philips, 1993), Igor Stravinsky (composer), London Philharmonic/London Symphony


This intense Russian might be the last great composer in history. Each of Stravinsky's magnificent ballets collected here—passionate Firebird, poignant Petroushka, unsung Apollo, and ground-stomping behemoth Rite of Spring—is filled with aching beauty and awesome brutality, producing transformative moments that delight, entice, inspire, and terrify. The audience rioted at Rite of Spring's 1912 premiere—Igor's punk cred is forever secure.


9. The Very Best of John Coltrane (Atlantic, 2000), John Coltrane


It's cheating a bit to pick a single-artist compilation, but the greatest saxophonist in jazz history has a huge catalog (not counting his seminal side-work with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk). This decent one-disc Atlantic comp (so nothing from 'Trane's mighty Impulse! catalog, unfortunately) rounds up what I can't do without: bold "Giant Steps," expansive "My Favorite Things" (on which pianist McCoy Tyner is every bit the star), beautiful "Naima," hip "Equinox," and reflective "Central Park West." The man poured his soul through the bell of his horn, and we're the richer for it.


8. The Carnegie Hall Concerts, January 1943 (Prestige, 1977), Duke Ellington


Like Coltrane, America's greatest composer has a huge catalog. This gets the nod because it contains the first airing of Black, Brown, and Beige, Duke's marvelous tone parallel to the African-American experience in America, along with period favorites "Rockin' in Rhythm," "Cotton Tail," and signature tune "Mood Indigo." Plus, tenor sax great Ben Webster joins orchestra mainstays Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges. Conducting musicians like these, Ellington created gorgeous palettes of sound, both on the astonishing range of moods here and throughout his long, illustrious career. And they all swing.


7. Atlantic Rhythm and Blues 1947–1971 (Atlantic, 1991), Various Artists


Eight discs of the greatest postwar R&B and soul ever waxed. Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Coasters, the Drifters, Booker T. and the MGs—the list goes on. Atlantic (and its later subsidiary Stax) influenced the tastes of a couple of pop generations with this soulful, funky, gritty sound. It's kid-in-a-candy-store time with "Lonely Avenue," "Rock Steady," "The Dock of the Bay," "Hold on, I'm Comin'," "Little Egypt," "On Broadway," "Hip-Hug Her"—the list do go on like a tasty Memphis soul stew.


6. The Great Deceiver (Virgin EG/Caroline, 1992), King Crimson


Guitarist extraordinaire Robert Fripp's short-lived prog-metal variant of his long-running King Crimson left a lasting mark, anyway, particularly in concert, as this four-disc live set proves both on robust versions of studio tracks ("Easy Money," "Exiles," "The Night Watch") and nervy improvisations ("Journey to the Center of the Cosmos," "Tight Scrummy," the drolly titled "Is There Life out There?"). Bassist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford form the core of their monstrous sound, with Fripp and violinist-keyboardist David Cross firing in heated interjections from the periphery. Heavy metal with a fine arts degree.


5. The Fillmore Concerts (Polydor, 1992), the Allman Brothers Band


The Big Daddy of all jam bands (the Dead? puh-leeze!), the Allmans always played with focus, purpose, and drive, and nowhere more so than in these shows. Pushed by the mighty rhythm section and accented by keyboardist Gregg Allman's man-of-constant-sorrow vocals, Duane Allman and Dickey Betts conjured soaring guitar interplay that transcended the term "Southern Rock." I couldn't be without "Statesboro Blues," "One Way Out," "Mountain Jam," and the gorgeous instrumental "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." Also fills my sadly-lacking blues quotient.


4. Live at Leeds [original version] (MCA, 1970), the Who


Pete Townshend and the Who made more Important Albums, but this live stopgap became a definitive statement anyway, showing that underneath the high energy and raw aggression—of which there are plenty here—lurked both smarts and heart. The anthem "My Generation" incorporates choice musical motifs from Tommy to emerge as the centerpiece, leading "Substitute," "The Magic Bus," and the simply ferocious tear through Mose Allison's "Young Man's Blues" that opens the record. Purist's note: I was tempted by the commemorative editions that add most or all of the band's tracks from this landmark show, but the original version is concentrated dynamite.


3. Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (Columbia, 1970), the Firesign Theatre


The greatest comedy album by the greatest comedy group to record. The Firesigns created intricately layered scenarios and soundscapes that hold up to repeated listening. Here, envisioning a late-night television viewing, Dwarf encompasses vacuous news broadcasts, rapacious televangelists, absurd game shows, insipid commercials, and half-remembered B-movies—all of it served up to a public too narcotized to care. The best lines are simultaneously hilarious and terrifying; what's really frightening is how much contemporary television has come to resemble the future envisioned by Dwarf all those moons ago.


2. Hot Rats [1986 LP version] (1969; Barking Pumpkin, 1986), Frank Zappa


FZ is my main man, and I could easily fill this list with his titles alone. The mostly instrumental Hot Rats gets the nod because it is an early pinnacle of his compositional and, thanks to the hot studio band, instrumental abilities. Rats ranges from stately ("Peaches en Regalia") to bluesy ("Willie the Pimp," with Captain Beefheart's vocals atop Zappa's burning guitar solo) and sophisticated ("Son of Green Genes"), climaxing with the sizzling "The Gumbo Variations," with intense solos from alto saxophonist Ian Underwood and especially violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris. "Valley Girl" was just the tip of the iceberg, folks; this guy was a genius. Purist's note: I'll take the 1986 LP reissue over the 1987 CD reissue because its "Gumbo Variations" edit is pared to its shredding essence. Wish I could hear the 1969 original, though.


1. Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia, 1965), Bob Dylan


Yes, the Sixties' manifesto "Like a Rolling Stone" is here, but it might not even be the best song. The greatest songwriter of the rock era revamped rock 'n' roll irrevocably with this landmark collection of biting, surreal, visionary songs—bolstered by Al Kooper's atmospheric organ and Mike Bloomfield's stinging blues guitar—and confirmed his credentials as the premier spokesman of the counterculture: caustic and witty, astonishingly articulate, and almost unerringly perceptive—a true original. Like Zappa, it's hard to pick just one of Zimmy's, but I couldn't be without "Tombstone Blues," "From a Buick Six," the title song, the epic "Desolation Row," and the harrowing tour de force "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." Bury me with this record.



All right, those are my choices. What are yours?

Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 18:47

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