Looking through some clips recently, I ran across one of my favorite old articles. This was published in the Holiday Records section of the East Bay Express on November 24, 2000. When New Times bought the Express in 2001 they deleted all the paper’s online archives from before the sale, but the Wayback Machine remembers. Unfortunately it only archived page one of a two-page article, so I’m reprinting it here for posterity:
A number of things happened all at once this year, as things tend to do: High Fidelity came out, the John Cusack movie of the Nick Hornby novel about list-obsessed record collectors (a cult favorite among list-obsessed record collectors). Then I heard the Go-Go’s were coming to town, which made me realize that Beauty and the Beat was easily one of my Top Ten Favorite Albums Ever. Which in turn made me wonder, what the hell are my Top Ten Favorite Albums Ever?
This question is by no means new. Everyone’s been asked about their “desert island discs,” the stuff that would help keep you sane if you had to listen to it over and over and over while stranded without even buzzards to keep you company—or, more to the point, wouldn’t drive you crazy. It’s a question I would have contemplated, movie or no movie. Critics like lists, partially because they’re easier than actual writing, and partially because they’re a distilled form of that missionary zeal that is (I hope) our starting point: “No, really, this you have to check out.”
So I tried to figure it out. I really did. And again, the Go-Go’s were a given. Not just because Beauty and the Beat was the first album by an all-female band ever to hit number one. Not just because I liked the “album tracks” just as much as the singles. It’s pure pop pleasure that isn’t guilty at all, because the album still feels like a manifesto. Yeah, it’s bubbly and cheerleadery and all that, but it rocks, and it doesn’t give a fuck what you think. “This town is our town/ It is so glamorous/ Bet you’d live here if you could and be one of us.” And you know it’s true.
But what else? Some of my musical heroes—Fats Waller, for example—predate albums altogether. (Probably the best pickup line any woman ever used on me was that she had a Victrola and some old Fats Waller sides. It worked.) Many more of my faves—and Robyn Hitchcock’s an excellent example—have never produced an album that I adore as a whole.
And ten? Ten ever? Where to begin? There’s the stuff I grew up with, my parents’ playlist filtered through a child’s selective memory (lots of Beatles, Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, Maria Muldaur, Frank Zappa’s Freak Out, Dr. John’s Gris Gris, Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come, the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, and later Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak and Randy Newman’s Sail Away). There are the battered LPs I’ve had since I was a preteen (Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Diana Ross, John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s The Message, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, Little Stevie Wonder/The 12 Year Old Genius).
And what about the records that opened up new worlds for me at the time, even if they’re worlds now left behind? Prince’s Purple Rain was like that, as well as Adam Ant’s Friend or Foe, the Sisters of Mercy’s First and Last and Always, Love and Rockets’ Earth, Sun, Moon, They Might Be Giants’ Lincoln, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Sinéad O’Connor’s The Lion and the Cobra, and the Sweeney Todd soundtrack. All stuff I still like, but it’s like that’s nowhere near as all-consuming as it once was. (Not to mention the discs I played all the goddamn time for awhile but then forgot about: AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward, XTC’s English Settlement, Throwing Muses’ Hunkpapa, Body Count’s Body Count, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, King Missile’s Mystical Shit, Bongwater’s Double Bummer, some damn thing by Pop Will Eat Itself, and others that I’ve forgotten completely.)
At first I thought Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs was a shoo-in for my list, even though it was a hipster’s choice and I hadn’t listened to it for a while. In many ways it’s an embarrassment of riches, with lazy-crazy songs like “Clap Hands” and “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” touching hard-luck rambles like “Tango Till They’re Sore” and “Hang Down Your Head,” and the brilliant blues “Gun Street Girl.” But some of the songs, though I adore them—the title track, “Singapore,” and “Cemetery Polka”—are simply novelty tunes, as much for their impenetrable surreality as for the fact that Waits sings them like the Cookie Monster. Sure, it’s one of my favorites, but could I really pick this over, say, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan?
The Pogues’ Rum Sodomy & the Lash presents the same problem. It’s great for what it is—raucous, original Irish drinking songs and madcap reels with the occasional pretty-pretty like “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday” to get you teary and thirsting for another drink. But the first side’s better than the second (as with most Pogues albums), and there’s always the chance that I’m just infatuated with the title (though if that were so, I’d sooner go for Bow Wow Wow’s See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah! City All Over, Go Ape Crazy). More importantly: compared to, say, Aretha’s Lady Soul it just seems a little lightweight.
The problem, really, is that picking ten albums is an inherently absurd exercise. Ten is a hopelessly inadequate number—it doesn’t even begin to give you a feel of the range of one’s tastes, let alone the stuff that you just have to check out. In the November Vanity Fair—the magazine’s first-ever music issue—Elvis Costello got to choose five hundred. Take a moment to let that sink in. A lot of people don’t have five hundred CDs, but these are just the five hundred he happens to like best—the “500 albums essential to a happy life”—and even then it’s a tough squeeze. And the thing is, he’s exactly right—not about the picks per se (though I wouldn’t presume to argue with most of them), but about the scale. Just looking over his list, I have to wonder, how can someone live without the Band, Blondie, Count Basie, Captain Beefheart, Johnny Cash, the Fugees, Dizzy Gillespie, the Kinks, the Louvin Brothers, Jelly Roll Morton, Prokofiev, Purcell, Sam and Dave, Nina Simone, Elliott Smith, or the Specials? (Both Rain Dogs and Rum Sodomy & the Lash are in there too, by the way, though it’s worth mentioning that Costello produced the latter.)
It also makes me wonder: How could he leave out Bob Wills, B.B. King, Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, Sinéad, Lyle Lovett, Pink Floyd, NWA, Eurythmics, the Pixies, or Taj Mahal, let alone Shonen Knife, Sleater-Kinney, Operation Ivy, Cake, Dan Bern, the Soft Boys, Joan Jett, and Elvis fuckin’ Costello? Four Grateful Dead discs but no John Lee Hooker? Three by U2 but no Talking Heads? Destiny’s Child but no Ani DiFranco? Pulp but no Public Enemy?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’d easily need a few hundred slots to begin to cover the albums I think everyone ought to have (what about Bauhaus? Muzsikas? the Old 97’s? Cesaria Evora? the Buena Vista Social Club?). And even then it would take me years to compile. Not the initial tally—that would only take hours—but just to live down all the stuff I forgot, the platters I love but don’t happen to have yet and the overwhelming majority of world-shattering music that I don’t even know about.
There’s another thing, too. Costello’s listing albums, but not really as albums. He throws in “best of”s and boxed sets with abandon. That gives him a lot of leeway. The Otis Redding disc he lists is The Very Best of Otis Redding (which doesn’t even have “Hard to Handle,” as long as I’m picking nits). These things are cobbled together from albums—they’re collections, anthologies. An album is something else.
An album is as much of an artwork as the songs on it—and sometimes more so. Even if I like all the songs on a disc, that’s not enough to make it a great album. It’s all about the arc of the songs—more than just the flow from point C to point D, but the terrain you had to travel to get from point A to point Z. It’s not so much stumbling upon an oasis—or splashing merrily from one to another, if it’s that sort of platter—as the deserts you crossed to earn it. A good album tells a story, not so much in the lyrics as in the music. Each song is a movement in the symphony.
But if you wanna talk about arcs, there’s no getting around Tommy. The Who stands out as the inventor of the rock opera, and pretty much its end, and Tommy is one of fewer than a handful of rock operas that never get tired, even if the art form did so almost immediately. Another is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which a fellow counter person and I once sang in its entirety from memory while serving lattes a decade ago—though I’ve never actually owned a copy (so expensive!).
But the rock opera is an extreme case. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the classic example of an album that’s very much of a piece without having a narrative per se: it’s a collection of magical ditties straight outta Pepperland played by the best band that never existed. Often imitated (Their Satanic Majesties Request, f’rinstance), but unmatched.
There’s been a lot of talk about the death of the album, among those who like to talk about such things. The advent of the CD was supposed to spell doom, because of the ease of skipping or programming tracks and the dreaded “shuffle” function. Not to mention that CDs only played on one side, rendering the whole concept of A and B sides meaningless. Decades’ worth of records designed with two sides in mind flowed straight through on CD, with unreleased tracks crammed in at the end. Many a consumer cooed at the convenience, but for collectors it was like watching a colorized version of a black-and-white movie —fascinating in its wrongness.
Now, of course, it’s much worse. CDs remain as overpriced as ever, but CD burners are cheap and plentiful, so it’s as easy to make a mixed CD as a mixed tape, without the cassette hiss. And with MP3 downloads as easy (and free) as they are right now, there’s a lot of music obtained out of context to begin with, and what use is an album if it’s no longer where listeners get songs?
Of course, by that logic singles would have spelled the death of the album, which brings up an interesting point. Singles predate albums to begin with. We had 78 RPM “sides” long before we had the LP. And at the outset albums were just another way to sell singles—radio play would get the kids buying 45s. Get enough singles and B-sides and whatnot together, and you can sell ’em a pricey LP too. No one gave a fig about the album concept—it was all about pushing singles. And the thing is, this never changed. For the recording industry, albums qua albums were a convenience at best, and often an inconvenience: only so much filler between singles, an excuse to get an artist out on tour to sell more records, a stocking-up of material for the future “best of”s. Economically speaking, the album-as-art-form was always a happy accident, and whether people are listening to them or not, albums continue to be made—and bought. The industry is conditioned to think of the next single, but the fan never asks, “Hey, when’s the new single coming out?” It’s always the album. And as long as consumers still think that way—and Lord love ’em, there’s no sign that they don’t, Napster lawsuits be damned—the industry will continue to crank albums out. And as long as they’re cranking ’em out, artists will be able to sneak out a few that are more than just a platform for a single or two.
People are still messing around with the album concept—and the concept album—all the time. The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka (1997), for example, on four CDs that had to be played simultaneously; Momus’ 1999 Stars Forever, for which he wrote songs about paying patrons; and also from last year, They Might Be Giant John Linnell’s collection of State Songs and those four little words, Garth Brooks concept album. Some of these might be very good (Stars Forever was on my Top Ten list last year), but they’re essentially stunts.
It took me aback to realize that one of my favorites came out last year, too — the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, a three-CD set of all original love songs by insanely talented songwriter Stephin Merritt. With anything that recent there’s a chance that it’s just an infatuation, that it may pass from my Top Ten Favorite Albums Ever someday. But why should that matter? “Ever” is a very long time. The first time I heard this tiny minute-and-a-half confection flowing out of my little boom box, with Merritt’s lyrics spilling over each other like the babbling-brook guitar and banjo accompaniment, I was transfixed, and I couldn’t get a thing done until I’d sat through the whole first platter. “Don’t fall in love with me yet/ We only recently met/ True I’m in love with you but/ You may decide I’m a nut/ Give me a week or two to/ go absolutely cuckoo/ then, when you see your error/ then you can flee in terror/ like everybody else does/ I only tell you this ’cause/ I’m easy to get rid of/ but not if you fall in love…”
Not only do I love it as much as the first time I heard it, but it seems like every time I listen to it I have a new favorite song. LD Beghtol crooning the folky “All My Little Words” (“Now that you’ve made me want to die/ you tell me you’re unboyfriendable/ and I could make you pay and pay/ but I could never make you stay”). Pianist/percussionist Claudia Gonson singing mournfully to an “Acoustic Guitar”: “If you think I play hard/ well, you could have belonged to Steve Earle/ or Charo or Gwar/ I could sell you tomorrow/ so bring me back my girl.” Merritt moaning “Papa Was a Rodeo” (“I see that kiss-me pucker forming, but maybe you should plug it with a beer.”) I could go on — surely pianist/percussionist Claudia Gonson’s blasé performance of “Zebra” (“If you really loved me you’d buy me the Great Pyramid/ Oh, I’m so forgetful, you already did”); Beghtol’s Gilbert & Sullivan-style turn at “For We Are the King of the Boudoir”; and Shirley Simms’ country gospel belting of “Kiss Me Like You Mean It” deserve a mention. But I’d wind up talking about all 69 drastically different gems of pop songcraft, and there’s neither time nor space. You just have to hear it for yourself.
Though I’ve heard a lot of crap in my day, I haven’t heard many really badly put together albums. Sure, producers will slather on the strings and synth and steel guitar until whatever’s alive in a song is smothered by atmosphere, but most of them know how to string songs together. It’s a little more involved than just spacing out the singles with ballads and also-rans, granted, but segues are easy. Give me a pile of songs and enough tape to fit them, and I can organize them so that they flow. It’s a cinch if you have an ear for it. I started making mixed tapes when I was eight or nine, playing DJ with my first miniature suitcase turntable and handheld tape recorder, and for decades it was my only musical outlet, my way of sharing all the cool stuff I found (even if it was stuff everyone else already knew about). But easy or no, whether or not there’s an art to it, there’s a joy in a perfect segue, whether you’re discovering it or just hearing it. In college, when I heard a KALX DJ slide straight from Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to Bongwater’s version of “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” I had to call the station just to gush about what a fuckin’ great segue that was.
The best segue in the world is still just a bridge you drive over, and it doesn’t do much good without a sense of where the road is taking you. Just look at rock’s most famous street-crossing. Sgt. Pepper is usually credited as the Beatles’ masterpiece (though weirdos like the White Album [cq. no itals -- that's not actually its name], and I like weirdos), but it will never, ever be my favorite. That distinction is reserved for Abbey Road, the last album they recorded (Let It Be was an earlier project released later) and my favorite record in the whole wide world throughout my childhood.
“Come Together” will forever be tainted by Alice Cooper’s version in that Bee Gees movie (plus, on my copy, it skips). But listen to that one song today, stoned and Stonesy as it is, and the mind boggles at how much Beck, for one, owes to it. The smooth but not-quite-syrupy “Something” whets the palate for the delightfully playful confections “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus’s Garden,” with “Oh! Darling” between them, a song I used to perform by cuddling my stuffed gorilla during the tender ’50s-rock verses and whipping the floor with it savagely during the screaming chorus. And the druggy “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” with its screaming organ and bubbling bass, with the guitar and McCartney’s vocals speaking as one, was a long strange trip that wore you into the ground.
And, of course, Abbey Road is an album that can’t be replicated properly on CD, because the sides of the record are important. The interminable “I Want You” is supposed to drag on and on, to build up slowly with that weird industrial hiss until you almost can’t take it anymore, the ponderous guitar riff repeating over and over and over and over and over and over until it stops, all at once with a short, sharp shock. It doesn’t lead into “Here Comes the Sun” — sure, the latter is a breath of fresh air, but one you can’t process right away. It’s the sweetest song on the album, dreamy and delicate, and it has its work cut out for it as a lead-in to “Because” — like a sprightly little faun running smack into a wide-eyed sorcerer or cult leader (again, my perception may be colored here by that damn movie) — and could be easily overpowered by the chugging beast that precedes it. And of course, by definition, “Here Comes the Sun” is the dawning of a new day (yes yes, and “Sun King” too, but three-sided LPs remain physically problematic).
I never cared much for the sleepy “Sun King,” but listen to the short guitar-and-drum segue from it to “Mean Mr. Mustard” — that may be my favorite single second on the album. And of course from then on the songs aren’t really songs at all, but tiles in a mosaic, steps on the stairway to “The End.” Flowing from “Mustard,” the rocking “Polythene Pam” is completed by “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”; the heartrending “Golden Slumbers” builds emotional tension to be released in “Carry That Weight” — with its reprise of “You Never Give Me Your Money” (not much of a song in and of itself, but perfect in its place) — moving up through the simple but memorable drum solo into a noisy, jubilant climax, smoothed out in the upper stratosphere by “The End.” Listen to any one of these as individual tracks (or, god forbid, on “shuffle”) and they don’t hold up, but sweet Jesus, what a song cycle. And “The End” isn’t even really the end, because the abortive little acoustic snippet “Her Majesty” lies hidden sixteen seconds beyond it. All this build-up and grand finale cleverly undermined by a tiny ditty that doesn’t even have an end of its own, that just cuts off mid-strum, scarcely twenty seconds into it.
They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
The thing is, I don’t even want to have a Top Ten Favorite Albums Ever. There’s something cute about having a favorite movie or book or animal, or color even, but at a certain point enough is enough. Sure, you like the color purple, but would you want to wear all purple every day for the rest of your life? It’d be madness. Man cannot live on chocolate alone. You can’t dwell in a box of a handful or two of song cycles — you need much, much more than that, even if you have to sing them to yourself. All in all, they’re all just bricks in the wall.