NOT a desert island, because you need to drink, silly!
Many people list their top 10 albums, or their top 20, or whatever. I have tried this exercise and found that I can’t do it. For one, my list is never a round power of 10, and for another I always have songs left over from albums that I absolutely must have, but the albums I can take or leave. (k. d. lang’s “Pullin’ Back the Reins is a good example; I can take or leave most of the rest of Absolute Torch and Twang.)
So this list is my top albums that I absolute couldn’t do without if I were stranded on a deserted island, along with a few songs I also just have to have. Along with why they’re magnificent and why you should rush out and listen to them yesterday, or why they’re special to me, whether they’re great or not. It’s not a list of albums I’m putting here so people think I’m cool (which I think is all too often the focus of a lot of these lists), or because I think the albums are great (though I do think some of them are great), or because I think my taste is better than anyone else’s, or anything like that. This is just the music that I love, is all. So for example I sure didn’t put Miles Davis here to score points with Jazz lovers; I put Kind of Blue here because I friggin’ love it.
These albums are in no particular order at all; just as they came out of my fevered noggin.
Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark
Joni Mitchell recorded plenty of awesome music, and I won’t belabor her greatness here. Many rate Blue as her apex; some Hejira. I won’t argue with them, though I personally believe this album is a peerless masterpiece. It’s special to me because it was one that was a soundtrack to my youth, and nothing can dislodge that from my brain. Mitchell’s soaring voice, the matchless musicians backing her, the incredible orchestration, and the tremendous, crystal-clear sound engineering are just astounding. And of course it brings me right back to summer days and evenings in our little house in the rolling hills of Northern Virginia in the early 70s, when I was still a grammar school student, kids could wander the neighborhood without fear of kidnap, “playdates” hadn’t been invented, and no one had been impeached since Andrew Johnson.
Mile Davis, Kind of Blue
I’m hardly alone in thinking this album is a masterpiece. People who know Jazz ‘way better than me will tell you all kinds of things about how it birthed entire new modes of the form. I don’t know nothin’ ’bout that; all I know is it’s beautiful, and has Miles Davis and John Coltrane both on it, and is just wonderful from end to end. I’ve had it in every format from vinyl to digital and I always will.
The Who, Who’s Next
The Who’s masterpiece (yes, I know I keep using that word; sorry). From the ashes of a failed follow-up project to Tommy that almost caused Pete Townshend to have an emotional breakdown, there was this. All the songs are great, whatever their provenance, but the absolute best is “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, a song that hides an incredibly cynical and biting message inside an unabashedly anthemic sound, something Springsteen duplicated with “Born in the USA” (an equally misunderstood song). I don’t care how great people think Radiohead is; Pete Townshend does stuff on this album Thom York wishes he could do. Plus Pete had Roger Daltrey.
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
Yeah, yeah, yeah; you’ve heard it all before about this album, and what more can I possibly add? Nothing. The fact is, it lives up to the hype. It’s simply a great album, from start to finish, and I would have to have it on my island. And that’s all there is to say about that.
k.d. lang, Ingénue
There are people who say it’s Beyoncé. There are people say it was Whitney Houston. There are people who say it’s Mariah Carey. Some will go for Aretha Franklin (which is hard to argue). Others Etta James. Or perhaps Barbra Streisand. Or Adele. But for me no one can sing like k.d. I’ll never forget seeing her on Saturday Night Live, singing “Pullin’ Back the Reins” with my mouth literally hanging open, sitting motionless for the entire song, flat-out awed by her performance. And nowhere is her talent on such full and complete display as Ingénue (though Shadowlands is damn fine). This album sucks you in, holds you in its spell for 40 minutes, then sends you on your way, and you can’t believe it’s over. And then you have to listen again. It’s a blessing to the world, this album. I could not possibly do without it. Thank you, k.d.
King Crimson, Discipline
Robert Fripp is a prick. He is also stupendously talented, a hard worker, a perfectionist, and puts out some amazing stuff. King Crimson is his baby, and he has moved personnel in and out of it over 45+ years as if they were musical instruments themselves, and with no more thought for their feelings. The results are sometimes brilliant, sometimes IMO unlistenable, sometimes just downright weird. With this collection of musicians and on this album, he hit the perfect balance of players at just their right degree of virtuosity, and they put out a work of art. Lots of people disagree with me, and that’s fine; this one speaks to me, and that’s the point of this list. Adrien Belew’s whack, extroverted guitar improvisations are the perfect foil for Fripp’s anal-retentive, obsessively over-produced finger-picking. When backed up by Tony Levin’s non-rock-based bass and his expressive Stick playing, held tightly in place by Bill Bruford’s precise-yet-muscular drumming, it all comes together beautifully. This is my favorite incarnation of King Crimson by far, and they made two more albums (Beat, Three of a Perfect Pair) that are almost as good before Fripp got itchy balls and blew it up for something different. This is the only one I can’t do without.
Talking Heads, Remain in Light
Talking Heads popped loose and gained their hold in American pop culture with Speaking in Tongues and their amazing, exuberant, basically-perfect concert film (except, IMO, the Tom Tom Club segment) Stop Making Sense. Both are wonderful, and I love and enjoy both regularly. Sometimes I just listen to Stop Making Sense, reliving the night when I and 5-6 friends and I piled into my housemate Peggy’s boyfriends car (it was some big, giant American 70s thing; a Lincoln Continental or some such) and rolled on down to the Sash Mill, a local art film theater in Santa Cruz, to watch it with a crowd of other raucous UC Santa Cruz students. A memorable night for sure. But nothing for me tops the swirling, sometimes loopy, sometimes surreal, polyrhythmic wonder that is Remain in Light. I never tire of it. (Much to the irritation of my friend Susan; “Don’t you listen to anything else?) Bizarre, transfixing, frustrating, odd, funky, danceable…it blew my brain away and never stopped.
Peter Gabriel, Security
Peter Gabriel was in Genesis before they became a singles-making machine under Phil Collins. Now, I’m not saying they were a bad band with Phil Collins, or that I dislike Phil Collins’ work, or anything like that; I’m just establishing a baseline here, as we say in the nerd biz. Gabriel was into World Music way before it was a thing, working with African musicians and rhythms in the mid-70s, most notably on the anti-apartheid anthem “Biko” from his third album. (A live performance of which I saw at the Oakland Coliseum Arena in the mid-80s as the anti-apartheid movement was gaining momentum, the memory of which—an entire crowd of 15,000 people in Oakland standing on their feet, fists in the air, chanting “OH OH OHHHHHHHH!” together with Gabriel’s multi-ethnic band—still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up on.) His music is not for everyone, despite being prominently featured in Everyone’s Favorite Teen RomCom Say Anything. It is complex, deeply personal, often wildly weird, and lyrically (to put it mildly) obscure. But it is most definitely for me, and this album is IMO his best. (Though So, his next offering, is damn fine.)
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin III
Yes, I’m well aware that most people will choose Led Zeppelin IV (or “Zoso” as some folks call it after the image that accompanied the vinyl album). I don’t care. Led Zeppelin IV is an excellent album and I would never argue it wasn’t, and you’ll find at least one of its songs down below, but for pure repeat listening value nothing tops this one for me. If you want your classic dose of crunching, mind-melting Zep blues-rock with mystical influence, you can listen to The Immigrant Song, but for me the strange, drifting, almost soft tone of the rest of the album is what draws me in. And while it’s hard for anything to top the intensity of “Kashmir” from Presence, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is in my opinion their rawest and most blues-inflected song ever. I can get along without IV; I can’t get along without this one.
Keith Jarrett, The Köln Concert
If you keep an open mind, you can learn from practically any source and any person. I have been blessed by having dated a wide variety of women with a wide background, who have exposed me to lot of different cultural influences, which I am forever grateful for. From my ex-wife Sami, who introduced me to Cajun culture (music, cooking, dancing) to others who have showed me everything from Lindy dancing to Shibari, I’ve really been lucky. And in this case, it was my first college girlfriend Alison, who introduced me to the amazing Keith Jarrett and his magical playing in Germany. I couldn’t get along without it. Thanks to all of you (many of whom I’m still friends with), and to Alison for this one.
Bob Marley, Legend
It’s not really fair to include a “greatest hits” album on one’s “favorites” list, but in this case I just have to. I’m a big believer in the letting artists define their craft through an album, although there are some exceptions. Creedence, for example, pumped out singles. AC/DC is another band that was just a singles machine. And in Marley’s case, while I wouldn’t put him in the same category, I think it’s fair to collect his best together like this. And this is one of those albums that’s actually on a lot of other folks’ “best albums” lists, too, so why the heck not? And I’d need it on my island, anyway.
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon / Wish You Were Here
I couldn’t decide whether to list two albums by the same group as separate entries, or to squoosh them together under one. I went with the latter choice; throw rocks at me if you wish. Both of these albums mean a lot to me, though for different reasons. Dark Side of the Moon because it is such a lovely, exquisite distillation of all the best of acid rock into one basically flawless album. Wish You Were Here because it served as the soundtrack for a period of my life that was both incredibly painful and yet growthful—mid-college—containing breakups and new relationships, friends made and lost, growth and discovery, that I wouldn’t trade for anything no matter how much it hurt and cost me at the time. I wouldn’t want to be without either one.
An album that, to me, can only be played in warm weather (as indeed all of Santana’s songs seem designed for in my mind). Santana’s first Gold record, a record on which Greg Rolie (later to become hugely successful with Journey) sang and played; the one with “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va”. Santana’s liquid, singing guitar playing (B.B. King made his guitar cry; Santana makes his sing), the mix of Spanish rhythm, Jazz, and rock, and the swirl of 60s psychedelia mixes just perfectly on this disc for me.
Donald Fagen, The Nightfly
Every time I put on this album, I think I’m only going to listen to a song or two, and every time, I listen to the whole thing. This is not by any stretch a classic album, but I just love it. I first found it through MTV, which back in my day played music videos instead of just episodes of Ridiculousness. It’s absolutely an album for Boomers, which I am not, despite my birth year; I am wedged into a very uncomfortable zone between Boomers and GenX. But somehow I really enjoy it; from the funky, paranoid-yet-horny synth-driven bop of “New Frontier” to the sweet, hopeful romanticism of “Maxine”, to the snapshot memory of “Walk Between Raindrops”, I find it compelling. And the opening hopefulness of I.G.Y, with it’s callbacks to Hugo Gernsback-driven jetpacks and space habitats, is almost specifically-designed to be Doug-bait. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. (added 1/1/2022)
And here are the songs I just couldn’t leave behind, either:
- “Pullin’ Back the Reins”; k. d. lang
- “Air from Suite #3 in D, II”, J. S. Bach
- “When the Levee Breaks”, Led Zeppelin
- “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, The Clash
- “Hotel California”, The Eagles
- “The Boys of Summer”, Don Henley (NOT a song for the summer, you boneheads!)