I’ve been writing pieces that are long and personal, not blog material. Sometimes creating the content feels like pulling teeth and I find myself wishing I would just write something mindless, where I wouldn’t be agonizing over the placement of every word like I was solving a Rubik’s cube.
The other day, I avoided the hard work by creating a list of favorite records and a light bulb went on: I could create a weekly list, whether about music, movies, sports, politics, cat videos, twerkers to avoid, whatever. It wouldn’t tax my mind (though I put more work into the list below than I intended). I wouldn’t care if anyone disagreed – by definition, everyone would. Since I’d be writing it simply for my own enjoyment, I wouldn’t obsess about rates, comments or page views (not that I ever do).
My list of favorite albums below – I aimed at ten and settled for a baker’s dozen – had one caveat to avoid many of the usual suspects: it could only include albums that were completely loaded into my iTunes. So beloved friends like Exile on Main Street, Graceland and Beethoven’s Ninth are not here, but seven records from the 21st century are. I like it better this way.
Beatles, The White Album: This is not my favorite Beatles record; that would be Revolver. This is not my second favorite Beatles record; that would be Rubber Soul. This is not my third … OK, you get the picture. I always felt this had too much fluff, too much second-rate material, too much revolution nine. I also hated that it foretold the band’s imminent break-up with music that seemed to be spinning off in four separate directions. Scott Freiman changed my mind. A composer and sound mixer who runs his own studio, Freiman has a flourishing side business giving detailed multimedia presentations on Beatles music, using demos, rare video clips and his knowledge of studio technology. (Highly recommended: check the website calendar here.) His lecture on The White Album made me appreciate the sprawling sound as proof of their diverse interests and willingness to explore, and I even love “Revolution 9.” I now hear the record through fresh ears. Hearing a Beatles record through fresh ears is a gift.
Donald Fagen, The Nightfly: I am a big Steely Dan fan, but I love front man Fagen’s 1980 solo album even more than the band’s records. It’s warmer, lacking the Dan’s snark, and gives a complex view of Eisenhower/Kennedy-era American can-do optimism without ignoring its frequent failure or the implicit self-delusion of believing we’ll be “eternally free and eternally young.” My dissertation, while noting Fagen’s references to his jazz idols, will insist that “The Goodbye Look” references America’s foreign military misadventures and that the title track portrays the marginalization of idealism by consumerism. But I’ll be tapping my feet while I write it.
Loudon Wainwright III, Older Than My Old Man Now: LW III is a 60-plus guy from Westchester County with a tendency to be a smart-ass while brooding about his shortcomings. I have no idea why he appeals to me. On his latest record, he’s contemplating mortality now that he’s passed the age when his father died (and also outlived his first wife). “Double Lifetime,” which finds him wishing to start over using the lessons he’s learned, and the self-explanatory “My Meds” and “I Remember Sex” evoke laughs without sacrificing bite. The not-funny-at-all “The Days That We Die,” where he duets with son Rufus, gets to me every time.
Louis Armstrong, The Best of the Hot 5 and Hot 7 Recordings: I can listen to any-era Satchmo – go ahead, try me – but this is the cream from the mid-1920s, where he creates the template for modern jazz. OK, that may be an exaggeration – then again, maybe not – but who cares? I doubt any of today’s recordings will still sound this fresh in 90 years. In Manhattan, Woody Allen listed “Potato Head Blues” as one of the things that make life worth living. He got that right.
Orchestra Baobab, Specialist in All Styles: They were Senegal’s most popular band during the 1970s and early 1980s, but changing tastes drove the band into retirement. The guitarist put aside his instrument and went to practice law in Togo. Then in 2001, a reunion concert revived their career and led to this recording. By the 4th or 5th listen, every song made me think, “Oh yeah, this one!” The mixture of African and Cuban rhythms still entrance, the lovely sound of the vocalists transcends the lack of translation, and the guitar – well, Togo may need more lawyers, but the world needs more guitarists like this. (Can we send Togo some of our lawyers?)
Pistol Annies, Hell On Heels: At first, I called this Miranda Lambert’s side group; having now heard Ashley Monroe’s solo album, I’ll treat the other band members with more respect. Ten tight songs about love and life, with the bonus of having unusually sharp observations about the difficulty of making ends meet, the record has a greater feel for how the American economy affects the working class than records by any rock star – or male – not named Springsteen, though their female protagonists are not so beat down that they can’t put a “Honk If You’re Horny” sticker on their car. (PS: Their just released second album is pretty good too.)
Radiohead, In Rainbows: I’m not a Radiohead fan. Their critically acclaimed OK Computer left me cold, and Thom Yorke’s falsetto whine affects me like fingernails on a chalkboard. When I first listened to this, however, I was surprised by how much I liked it. From the electronica-infused rhythm of “15 Step” to the crunching guitar of “Bodysnatchers” to the moody strumming of “House of Cards,” I felt nothing but pleasure. Of course, most of that pleasure came from Jonny Greenwood’s guitar, but for once, Yorke didn’t bother me.
Richard and Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights: When I began dating my wife 30 years ago, she was annoyed that I loved this acidic portrait of a collapsing relationship. She considered it a bad omen. We’re still together and now she’s a fan of Thompson. So yes, it was a very bad omen!
Roots, How I Got Over: Mellow enough for background music, challenging enough lyrically to warrant close attention, this record explores all of my public concerns – war, safety, the economy – as well as my private ones: Am I doing the right thing? Am I giving my children the right lessons? In the last two years, I’ve played this more than any record except the Vampire Weekend (below). On a side note, drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s memoir, Mo Meta Blues, is an excellent read.
Sly and the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On: For me, this album marked the end of the 1960s, when we learned that taking a “Stand!” led to getting smacked down, when “I Want to Take You Higher” led to snorting coke off the sound mixer (as Sly reportedly did during the sessions), when “Everybody Is a Star” led to the bandleader recording the album alone, with very little help from his band mates. It even turned the funky “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” into a dirge. Yet this slow, sludgy (he supposedly kept erasing and reusing the same tape) and pessimistic record fascinates me. I’ll want to listen to it on my deathbed.
Teddy Bears, Devil’s Music: When this record came out in 2011, I wrote: “Dance floors and yours truly are like Hatfields and McCoys – you don’t want them in the same place at the same time. But believe me when I tell you that this kicks from the get-go and doesn’t let up for 38 minutes, varying tempo and style. Guest vocalists include Cee-Lo Green and the B-52s (together!) singing a love song to a Type-A cat (“You’re, like, my best friend!”); Robyn and Eve (“I’m hot like Telemundo chicas on a solar panel”) laying down rhymes; and the Flaming Lips questioning a crystal meth Christian. ‘Them drum machines ain’t got no soul,’ but this record sure does.”
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires in the City: I’ve been obsessed with this record since it came out a few months ago, playing it all the way through 25 times according to my iTunes counter, and I’ll probably play it again after I finish writing this. The melodies entrance, the layered production reaches for majesty and often achieves it, and the drummer can do no wrong. The lyrics, often about finding love and balance in a world of fundamentalism and doubt, demonstrate a generosity of spirit that I often find myself incapable of. My favorite moment is not sung, but spoken, about “an Orthodox girl [who] fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop.” That’s the world I want to live in.
Willie Nelson, Stardust: Willie wouldn’t be my first choice for a standards album – maybe not even my twenty-first – but I’ve loved this since the first time I heard it 35 years ago, and I’ve continued to love it the 2-3 times a year I continue to play it. Willie’s relaxed voice eschews the embellishment of so many crooners and lets the lyrics and melodies take center stage. And what lyrics and melodies – Carmichael, Berlin, Weill, Ellington, Gershwin! “Why not take all of me,” indeed.