This is the oldest musical thread in the world. But I’m curious to know which ten albums you would take with you to that mythical desert island.
Part of the fun, and part of the challenge, of course, is narrowing it down to ten albums. So here are mine, today. The list would probably change tomorrow. I hope it goes without saying that these are my choices, and they may not be, and probably won’t be, yours. So what are yours?
(In no implied order other than alphabetical)
The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo – This album was my introduction to the real deal – truckstop jukebox, cry-in-yer-beer country music -- and from here it was an easy step to The Flying Burrito Brothers (essentially this version of The Byrds minus Roger McGuinn), then the solo Gram Parsons albums, then Emmylou Harris, who introduced me to the music of the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers, etc. In short, I was off and running. I hated country music before this album, thought it was the exclusive domain of rednecks and inbred cretins. But something changed in my freshman year of college, off in a town I did not know, when I first heard “It’s a hard way to find out that trouble is real/In a faraway city with a faraway feel.” This music started to connect in deep ways. Here’s the secret: country music – the real thing, not the swill made by Nashville popsters in cowboy hats – is pure soul music. And Sweetheart of the Rodeo has incredible soul, and it was made by a bunch of hippies who made it palatable for my generation.
Bruce Cockburn – Humans – Bruce Cockburn has been a musical hero to me for thirty years, Exhibit A in how to express complex Christian truths poetically and movingly. He’s also an astoundingly gifted guitarist and a ceaseless synthesizer of virtually every musical genre imaginable. Ironically, in later albums he abandons his poetic sensibilities when he addresses political issues, and he is guilty of the worst kind of dogma and polemical ranting. But Humans finds him in perfect musical and lyrical form – that is, if working through the devastating effects of a divorce can ever be said to be perfect. In any event, he is bloody, damaged goods here, and these jazz-tinged folk songs are raw, open wounds full of sorrow, pain, and ultimately, astonishingly, hope.
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue – It’s the obvious choice, but it’s obvious for good reasons. This was, unfortunately, the second Miles Davis album I encountered. The first, Bitches Brew, struck me as a meandering, noodling, aimless mess, and I avoided jazz for years afterwards. But Kind of Blue finally connected the dots for me. It was structured enough to follow, and it was loose and improvisational enough to showcase the astonishing creative powers of the three primary soloists – trumpeter Davis, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, and pianist Bill Evans. Evans’ composition “Blue in Green,” (and the trumpet solo Miles takes on that song) is as close as I’ve ever gotten to a religious experience listening to music. It is simultaneously exhilarating, relaxing, and supremely, beautifully lyrical.
Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited – It could just as easily have been Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks. But I’ll go with Highway 61 … because it contains the single greatest song ever recorded (“Like a Rolling Stone”), because it contains the universe’s only thirteen-minute song that leaves you hanging on every word (“Desolation Row”), and because, contrary to popular belief, Bob Dylan is one of popular music’s greatest singers, pouring unbridled passion and sneering contempt into every song.
Al Green – Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 – I’m cheating, I know. But there is no way I can limit my love for Al Green to one album, and this greatest hits collection, culled from his early ‘70s albums on Motown, offers one stunning example after another of the last pure soul singer, tossing off gritty sexual asides and gliding into that impossibly great falsetto. The genius of Al Green is that he is obsessed with love, sexual and divine, and it’s often impossible to tell the difference. He brings a whole new meaning to incarnational theology.
Brad Mehldau – Elegiac Cycle – Most “third stream” music -- music that strives to incorporate both classical and jazz elements – fails miserably. Most solo piano albums are snoozefests. So why is it that this classical/jazz hybrid succeeds so well? Partly because Brad Mehldau is a towering pianist, someone who has mastered both the classical and jazz repertoires and can move effortlessly between them, tossing stabbing Keith-Jarrett like improvisational runs into the Rachmaninoff sturm and drang. But mostly because Mehldau is an incurable romantic, and finds the heart of melancholy and loss again and again in these nine original songs. He spins impossibly knotty lines, twisting and cavorting, slicing and dicing these heartbreaking melodies before he brings it all back to the lovely place from which he started.
Joni Mitchell – Blue – Navel gazing elevated to high art. Joni Mitchell has the uncanny ability to lay bare the most intimate details of her personal life and make them universal. Like Bob Dylan, who once turned a snub from a hotel clerk into the apocalyptic nightmare of “When The Ship Comes In,” Joni Mitchell works her magical alchemy, transforming the slightest of personal incidents into works of poetic insight and grandeur. For my money, outside of anyone named Zimmerman, she’s the greatest popular songwriter of the last half of the twentieth century. On Blue she is running from and toward love – a familiar Joni theme – simultaneously scared of commitment and drawn like a moth to the flame of human connection, of needing to matter to someone. As usual, she is poetically ambivalent, celebrating the joys of new love in “All I Want,” and ruefully lamenting the wreckage of failed relationships in “River” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” “I’m gonna blow this damn candle out,” she sings at the end of the album. “I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table/I got nothin’ to talk to anybody about.” I’ve been happily married for twenty-three years. But I remember that feeling. And Joni conjures it better than anyone else, and reminds me of the high stakes in the human poker game.
Van Morrison – St. Dominic’s Preview – Van Morrison is the greatest singer of the rock ‘n roll era. Period. He can also be a great songwriter, effortlessly turning out great R&B/soul rave-ups like “Jackie Wilson Said” and “I Will Be There,” as he does on this album. But he’s at his best when he plays the spiritual poet/sorcerer, following his Muse into spaces extremely weird, extremely mystical, and extremely great. “Listen to the Lion,” the tour de force of this album, is eleven minutes of humming, moaning, roaring and scatting, Van breaking free of the limitations of language, off into the mystic and in pursuit of the ineffable. It will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
Vigilantes of Love – Killing Floor – If Flannery O’Connor was a man and manic-depressive, she/he would be Bill Mallonee. Which is kind of scary, if you think about it. But Bill’s songs remind me of Flannery for many reasons, not the least of which is the way that grace breaks through, often unlooked for, in the darkest and most despairing of circumstances. I also greatly appreciate the fact that Bill writes songs from the perspective of a Christian who does not have his life together. He has questions, he has doubts, he sins. Kind of like an actual human being. Of course, it helps that he has great folk-punk energy, nowhere better evidenced than on this album, and that he comes up with some astoundingly wonderful metaphors.
Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – You can smell the Louisiana dirt in Lucinda Williams’ music. No songwriter captures a sense of place as well as Lucinda, and on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road she explores the American Deep South with finely detailed geographical and personal reflections. Like Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road," this album is a travelogue in which much more is revealed than can ever be found on a roadmap. These songs are explorations of charred expanses, bleak vistas, deep holes, but they’re as often found within as they are in the surrounding landscape. Williams has always been a great songwriter; here she hitches her great songs to a tougher, rootsier, more organic sound that matches her raspy vocals perfectly. She howls her poetry into the southern wind. And it comes out of my speakers sounding like universal truth.
I can’t believe I couldn’t find room on this island for Aretha Franklin, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Dick Dale, The Beatles, John Coltrane, Bruce Springsteen, Thelonious Monk, The Ramones, The Carter Family, Bill Evans, Muddy Waters, Arvo Part, Norman Blake, Richard Thompson, The Louvin Brothers, Tom Waits, The Rolling Stones, Sam Phillips, American Music Club, Victoria Williams, Sonny Rollins, Nick Drake, The Blasters, Talk Talk, The Who, Billie Holiday, Elvis Costello, Derek and the Dominoes, Chuck Berry, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe, The Sex Pistols, The Blue Nile, Sufjan Stevens, Otis Redding, Big Star, Paul Simon, James Brown, Peter Gabriel, solo John Lennon, Sandy Denny, The Innocence Mission, Steve Earle, The Replacements, Mavis Staples, The Band, Frank Sinatra, Mark Heard, Henryk Gorecki, Joe Henry, Charlie Parker, X, Ralph and Carter Stanley, Jackson Browne, Kate Rusby, Howlin’ Wolf, Uncle Tupelo, Tonio K., Red House Painters, Buddy and Julie Miller, The Beach Boys, Los Lobos, The Pixies, Leo Kottke, The Clash, Johnny Cash, Matthew Sweet, Elvis Presley, The Pogues, Merle Haggard, Graham Parker, John Tavener, U2, or Radiohead. You’ll find them crowded together on the next island over.