I recently had the absolute pleasure of reciting a little Shakespeare during an Orchestre Surreal concert, for the closing night of the Grove Shakespeare Summerfest, so having Shakespeare on the brain, a bit, is how I came to this title. It’s from Twelfth Night, and the full quotation is: If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die. That strain again!
I was challenged on Facebook recently to post the cover of a great album. I, Forever Nerd, love those kinds of challenges, quizzes and lists. I’ll always bite. And I found it nearly impossible to narrow the list down to ONE all-encompassing example of greatness (I did, though, for the sake of the challenge), but it made me itchy to compile my Top 10. The fascinating thing about Top 10 Desert Island lists is that they usually reflect not just someone’s favorite sump’n-sump’ns, but the sump’n-sump’ns that shifted something in the person, that played an integral role in the turning point moments, that were a part of that person’s various magnificent puberties. So I started to compile the list, and couldn’t, for the life of me, narrow it down to ten. I could fairly reasonably narrow down twenty examples and feel I’d done my inspirations justice, but I absolutely could not do just ten. I tried. I really did. It was impossible to pick ones to omit.
I take this stuff very seriously! And yes (I do know what you’re thinking) I could most definitely benefit from a yoga class right now. But before I succumb to the cold tyranny of chill copacesence, om sensibilities, and serenity-seeking Downward Dogs, I have managed to compile twenty albums that changed me, that helped define who I am today. What do I know of greatest? I just know what I think is great, what has shaped me, what I would happily be isolated away from the known world in the aural company of. Twenty albums that have fed my soul and rendered something new with each listen, and will continue to do so until the day I shuffle off this mortal coil. Sorry, it seems that old Will S. is going to be lodged in my brain for a while.
So, the 20. And if any of you Millennials out there are already hip to any of these — because barely a one (with the odd exception or three) is newer than thirty years old — I salute you for not taking the predictable position of buying into the Old Fart myth, and believing that nothing from the last millennium has relevancy. Likewise, the fact that barely a one is newer than thirty years old is purely coincidental. Because I’ll also never subscribe to the popular fallacy, beloved of MY age group, that there is no more good music. There is. There always has been. There always will be.
Here goes (in no kind of hierarchical order, though I’ve gone back and forth for days over whether to do this alphabetically, in order to remain democratic . . . yeah, I know, yoga). We’ll start with the one I selected for the Facebook challenge.
1. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue
This may very well be the most perfect album in history. Miles became a godling to me very early on in my development as an artist, and also just as a human being. I resonated with his restlessness in refusing to remain in the same place. When most artists cultivate a voice that becomes signature for them, Miles was onto the next idea almost before the last one even got a chance to be cemented. It angered a lot of his fans. And I am really just making an assumption that restlessness was the motivating force. Maybe he wasn’t restless at all. Maybe he was simply so ravenous in his artistic appetite that he needed to devour everything in some way. I’ve probably heard most of Miles’s seminal works, but there is a naked simplicity, a focus, and a palpable mood to Kind of Blue that sets it apart not only from other music, but other of Miles’s music. And timeless! There isn’t a single element in it that dates it. It was recorded in 1959, but could’ve been recorded in 2016. I think it largely has to do with the role of acoustic instruments, versus the new trick in electronic and digital innovation (there used to be a new one every decade, now it’s about every time you blink). The acoustic instrument remains the same from century to century, and with it a sense of perpetual relevance.
Besides which, and really the most salient point, it is an emotionally resonant, open-veined, moody expression that evokes the shadows, a philosophical, spiritual, and conceptual place I tend to find my own greatest inspirations and epiphanies. It’s also sexy. Even though, and let me be really clear about this, sexy is not a requirement for relevancy. But it is sexy. Sensuous. Slinky. Smoldering.
Try a taste.
“Blue In Green” from Kind of Blue
2. Pharoah Sanders’ Thembi
My sister hipped me to this album and this artist. I don’t even think she knows the full impact of what that introduction meant for me as an artist myself, and how I have approached my own works since. Not that ANYTHING I’ve ever produced even remotely invokes Sanders’s sound, nor has it ever intended to. It’s just the idea behind what he creates that has become my own silent credo: To summon the freaking gods through expression that understands the workings of the subconscious mind, and presents a more psychologically symbolic expression, than, say, a linear narrative. A few years later, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew would end up being another undertaking that did that same kind of thing to me.
When my sister first said “listen to this,” without any warning, any explanation, any disclaimer (my sister is nearly a generation older than me, and was plugged into to a whole music scene that was nowhere near my playground), I didn’t know what the hell I was listening to, or what it meant, but I was hooked, and I didn’t quite understand why. I was 16 years old. My age group, in my day, was listening to Michael Jackson and Heatwave, and anything disco. My dad came into my room once when I was blasting it (it kind of needs to be blasted, just like really great speed metal), and wondered what demon had possessed me. He called it crap! noise! It is a primal scream, for certain, a dissonant celebration of everything abstract and visceral, and from a plane pre-language, from the groin. My dad not only hated it, it made him angry, as if the Great Pharoah were summoning a pimped-out Satan himself, and putting my dad’s home and family in peril. It’s truly deep the emotions Thembi pulls out of people. For me, it was an awakening (again with the shadows) of the subconscious. For years I didn’t understand how Pharoah’s saxophone fit into any harmonic landscape. And I didn’t really care, because I loved what I perceived as him going completely rogue, breaking all the rules. Imagine my surprise, as I got more musically educated, when I discovered that there IS a harmonic rhyme, reason, and method to his seeming madness. It’s a visitation from other modes and scale systems, some far more dissonant than the ones our western ears are used to. But there is a system. He may live just outside of it, and scratching at the door, but he’s there. I choreographed a solo piece in my modern dance class in high school to a piece from Thembi fused with a piece from a Lonnie Liston-Smith album that had a similar primal growl and astral channeling. I couldn’t put this music into words at that time, which is why they were kind of perfect to interpret for the medium of modern dance.
3. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme
Closely related to the music of Pharoah Sanders, to my ears, is A Love Supreme. Another example of an artist channeling something abstract and sublingual. Coltrane was in his spiritual phase during this recording. The four tracks are epic, and are virtually chapters of one total concept. They’re really four parts of a suite, with Part one, entitled Acknowledgment, containing the mantra or chant that became the album title. And the most commonly accepted interpretation of the album’s title and the music itself is that the love to which he refers is for God, or IS God. And it absolutely feels/sounds like such an invocation. And the fact that a chant, of sorts, engines the piece is both power and submission all in one aural experience. I have my lifelong family friend Harmon Outlaw to thank for hipping me to this. I was around thirty years old with THIS puberty. Side note: both Thembi and A Love Supreme are referenced several times in my novel The Assassination of Gabriel Champion.
Be prepared for ascension.
“Resolution” from A Love Supreme
4. Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Swings Lightly
This one owes the credit for showing up in my life to my dad. Yes, the same dad who deemed Pharoah Sanders a musical charlatan. My dad was a deep lover of music, which doesn’t mean he was going to like everything. Who of us out there likes everything? His tastes tended to reflect, first of all, his era. But also a more mainstream music that nonetheless was obligated, for his taste, to swing freaking hard. So, he exposed me to his musical loves: big band, swing, the crooners, the torch singers, and the blues gods. And of the plethora that I was saturated with in my youth, the one that became singularly the artist that made me want to sing was the empress, goddess, Ella Fitzgerald. I was so obsessed with her that I memorized every lick and scat that she ever perfected. Again, I was only a young teenager, when the rest of my kind were listening to Heatwave. Truth be told, so was I. But I was also memorizing Ella’s scat solo in Just You Just Me. She was authentically off the cuff with these pearls, a passing thought only immortalized because a “recording in progress” button was pushed. But for me, every phrase was studied obsessively. My young inexperienced voice was unprepared for such chops, but I clunked through them for years before I even realized I might want to try this singing thing for a living myself.
She is playful, but skillful like a surgeon. The only singer truly worthy of the label of scatter. A jazz singer in the truest sense. It’s awfully funny to me that I got pigeonholed very early on in my own career as a jazz singer, because I am the last thing from that spirit. I’m an extremely conservative singer, in spite of my tastes for burning scatters and progressive jazzers. I don’t improvise, don’t change up the melody to float over changes, don’t scat, even though Ella’s scatting was what originally mesmerized me. And it’s a good bet I don’t scat BECAUSE of that. Awe has kept me at a respectful distance. The silent credo being “if you can’t top Ella, or even meet her on her plane, don’t bother.”
And though I’ve done little else but talk about her scatting prowess, what makes her goddess for me is not that, but her attention to phrasing and nuance. The songs she’s singing on this particular album are the songs everyone was recording at the time. But no one phrased like her. OK, yes, there was Sarah Vaughn. Betty Carter. Cassandra Wilson. But Ella and her American songbook efforts were what made me choose a certain path of my own. These tracks still quiet a room with today’s listen.
Don’t let the scatting burn your fingers.
“Just You Just Me” from Ella Swings Lightly
5. Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives OF Henry VIII
Interestingly enough, of the two arguably most virtuosic keyboard rock gods in the world (Rick Wakeman of Yes, and Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Keith Emerson was actually a friend, someone I got to know very well in the last decade of his life. And his gifts were meteoric, and that is absolutely without hyperbole. Tarkus is genius. Yet Rick Wakeman is who I am including on the list because his impact in my life is longer lived, by a good 35 years. I was given the solo album listed above at a very pivotal time in my youth, by the girlfriend of my recently singled father. And it has been with me and blown my mind ever since. ELP’s existence in my consciousness is much newer. The Six Wives of Henry VIII is Moog and Hammond B3 heaven, for starters. It was the very beginning innovations of that kind of electronic musical universe, with his fortissimo runs that variously dipped into both the classical and blues universe, and are fiery and dazzling. And that keyboardists could legitimately stake a claim in the guitar-dominant rock world was audacious. Wakeman’s Henry Vlll shaped my growing years, and growing ears.
Beware the chopping block.
“Catherine Howard” from The Six Wives of Henry VIII
6. Joni Mitchell’s Mingus
Joni is so brilliantly prolific that from day to day my favorite of hers continually shifts. From Blue to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter to Turbulent Indigo I float in a daze of inimitable songwriting prowess. Those only begin to scratch the surface. But it was Mingus, Joni’s paean to another musical genius (bassist god Charles Mingus) and featuring the playing and arranging of yet another again (contemporary bass legend Jaco Pastorius), that first brought Ms. Mitchell into my world. Thanks Pete Strobl! I had never heard anything like it. Her songwriting is so odd and somehow non-linear. She almost never composes “hooks” but merely tells stories over melodic lines that nearly defy form, and yet make all the form-&-function sense in the world. Jaco did some stunning horn arrangements for the album, all her signature takes on Mingus tunes, and of course Jaco’s prominent, patented bass sound is meant, in a way, to stand in for Maestro Mingus, who should just be allowed to sit back on his throne and be honored (actually, Mingus died the same year Mingus was released). There are also some tasty morsels of home recordings of Mingus talking that occur between tracks. The whole piece is utterly artful. Joni Mitchell is known as the preeminent folk singer, but her voice, pliant like taffy, was meant for jazz.
Talk about phrasing.
“Goodbye Porkpie Hat” from Mingus
7. Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace
During the 70’s and 80’s, which I maintain IS the renaissance of the great female R&B and soul singers (Chaka, Patti, Mavis, Gladys …), whenever they were at their best they were described as “takin’ it to church.” Well, Aretha’s Amazing Grace is her example of literally doing that. Recorded in her minister father’s baptist church, she and the church’s choir lit up this canon of iconic gospel anthems. And having come out of the baptist church choir myself, I knew every one of these songs, they have that ancestral tug on me, and absolutely nobody on the planet does the same justice to them as Ms. Franklin. Her interpretations are infectious, simmering almost to points of hair-pulling, only then to erupt and release. I used to giggle as a child, in church, when witnessing the aisle-marching of the women who were “hit by the Lord.” But I will march an aisle any day for Goddess Franklin.
Try not marchin’, see how far you get.
“How I Got Over” from Amazing Grace
8. Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s the Way of the World
From that opening guitar and bass lick on Shining Star, within seconds a funk has been established that will be hard to match, let alone surpass, as one progresses through the eight tracks. But they manage to keep it raised. This album was truly my first exposure to music that was funky and groovy and had a fat-ass pocket. I would come to love Parliament Funkadelic (especially their deranged theatricality), Prince, Curtis Mayfield (in my mother’s house we had to sneak to listen to Superfly), and the Ohio Players in much the same way, but Earth, Wind & Fire was the introduction for me. Happy Feelin’ is absolutely infectious, and that baritone sax opening lick, and those vibes, give it true street love. My little brother and I sang Reasons loudly and in a continuous loop, in the back of my dad’s rented motor home all across the US that summer. You cannot listen to this album and stay seated. Or, for that matter, any of the other examples in this paragraph. That is the powerful way with funk music, and there was (and still is) NO GREATER decade for it than the 1970’s, especially for its tendency to court social commentary of the streets. Actually, as I complete this thought I realize that while all of the other examples in this paragraph tended to make urban plight commentary, Earth, Wind & Fire never really did. They were plugged into a whole other sensibility and sensitivity; the spiritual, and largely eastern at that. They composed and sang always about peace, love and light in the world, compassion, astral travelings, cosmic consciousness. Hmmm, an earlier personal influence than I even originally knew.
Pure … just … joy.
“Happy Feelin’ from That’s the Way of the World
9. & 10. Bonnie Raitt’s Sweet Forgiveness & Streetlights
Though these two albums were released three years apart, 1974 and 1977 respectively, they came into my life at the same moment. High school, and a friend lent me these two records, and I never returned them. (If borrowing karma is real, then that explains why there are many, many items I’ve lent to friends that I never got back). In any case, because they came to me at the same time, I practically see them as one long record. These records opened up my world of rootsy Americana rock, and chick singers who sing the shit out of blues (I met the music of Janis much later on) but also having a sweet melodic heart, and storytelling songwriting, which influenced my own future songwriting. There’s grits in that woman’s voice! And she plays a wistful guitar too. Wistful goes a long way in my book. I wore the grooves out of those records. Thank you, friend whose name I don’t even remember. You changed my life that day, and I’m sorry you never got your records back. Sort of.
11. Elliott Smith’s Either/Or
Simple yet emotionally penetrating, Elliott Smith wrote and sang about internal struggles, with simple narrative takes on neighborhood things. He established a signature sound of doubling his vocals for a kind of rudimentary choral effect, and his production was basic guitar-led folk. I say basic because there has always been a simplicity to folk music from a production standpoint. The great folk and folk rock music renaissance of the 1960’s (Dylan, Baez, Simon & Garfunkle, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds…), which was really a re-invigoration of the folk and roots music of the depression era (Guthrie, Johnson, Leadbelly…), seemed to be resurfacing again with Elliott Smith’s Either/Or as we neared the millennium. There had been a dearth of folk music for a good three decades, in favor of slickly produced, technically polished pop gleams and shimmers. To my mind, it was Smith who reopened the door for the likes of Damien Rice, Iron & Wine, James Vincent McMorrow, Ben Harper, The Civil Wars, Eastmountainsouth, and so many more who presently or recently peopled the universe with the newest folk resurgence. They like to call it “singer/songwriter” as a new genre name, but except for the ones who also produce slickly, it is the exposed heart and stripped down soul of folk music, with more attention paid to emotional expression than technical virtuosity or production wizardry. Either/Or is on this list because it paved the way for a present movement that is actually very close to my heart. But it’s also on this list for its own sake. It is artful, poignant melancholy. Clearly betraying a dark inner life, as Elliott Smith took his own life before his canon of work barely got a chance to form. Sorry for the cliche, but at least his music lives on.
Which kind of bar is he talking about here? Hmmmm.
“Between the Bars” from Either/Or
12. Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball
Emmylou is actually an example of folk & roots that existed in the last folk wave, and continues through this present one, because she is still recording. In the early days, she was strictly country. But the kind of country that was roots and Americana and blues steeped. Front porch music. When country music started to become polished, corporate pop (around the 1980’s), that’s when I lost interest. But I love the country music that reflects the roots and blues influence. That was Emmylou. And then she went and did something audacious for a country singer; she changed her entire sound and direction. I tend to credit the producer of her mid-90’s album Wrecking Ball, the inimitable ambient-guitar-abstract godling Daniel Lanois. But it would do a disservice to the artist herself not to assume she had a hand in the decision to do something as risky as completely change gears. The result is an electronic ambient wash of mood and manipulation of the guitar as experimental instrument. Emmylou has never sounded better, though I backtrack just slightly in my pronouncement that she completely changed gears. She’ll always have the rural in her voice and delivery. And it more than compliments the atmospherics of a Lanois production. Or should I say his sound more than compliments Emmylou’s ruddy texture and great heart.
Melancholy beauty on a Steve Earle gem.
“Goodbye” from Wrecking Ball
13. Bon Iver’s Bon Iver
Speaking of ambient and atmospheric washes of sound (clearly I am drawn to this, as my own musical partner in a few ventures, guitarist Ken Rosser, leans toward that sensibility himself) Bon Iver, the band whose creator and visionary is Justin Vernon, almost seems too new to be on a list of desert island musts, because only time and distance really determine who has lasting legs and who does not, but then again I said this list was about my own personal impact, not a global consensus one. And so, I’m including them (I keep wanting to type “him” because I do believe HE went by the singular name Bon Iver before it was deemed to be a band name), because it has been a long time since my head has been this turned by an artist’s voice (arresting falsetto timber), production sound (those symphonic and electronic atmospherics again), and abstract songwriting (Vernon is a poet in the truest non-linear sense) which have combined to create a genuinely moody, textural ambiance that feels, always, to me, like winter. I realize that’s an abstruse comment. I also just realized as I typed this that iver is French for winter, so maybe that image just lodged as a matter of subconscious suggestion, but it truly does sound like winter, with lyrics that bear the weight of wintry austerity. I adore their sound. And it doesn’t follow anyone’s musical suit. It is a genuinely unique entity. Holocene may just be the most gorgeous song I’ve ever heard.
Ready for gorgeous?
“Holocene” from Bon Iver
14. Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates
This woman’s voice is an instrument! A breathy woodwind or sighing bow on strings. My very first boyfriend introduced me to Pirates. We were a raging hormone teen couple, always fighting, loving, laughing, and full of drama. And it makes a certain sense that we would be drawn to this effort, which features songs of fighting, loving, laughing, and youthful hormone-raging drama. The songs Skeletons and The Returns are heartbreaking, both reflecting a you-and-me-against-the-world sensibility that can, and sometimes does, turn tragic. These songs artfully convey tragedy, magnificent puberties, and the poetry of the streets. And that voice just defies logic and common sense. She’s often parodied for having enunciation challenges, as if her vocal takes are booze-fueled and nerve-damaged (and for all I know, they might very well have been), but I find it a rather intoxicating (seriously no pun intended!) added texture to the canvas.
Perfect you-&-me-against-the-world allure.
“We Belong Together” from Pirates
15. Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love
My best friend and I have a running joke of perpetually claiming that Jimi is a cousin. I don’t know about for her, but for me it’s all wrapped up in this deeply familial resonance his music has for me. He didn’t come along for me until late in life (my early 30s), but when he did I devoured everything. I’m not an instrumentalist, so I can’t truly articulate his guitar sacredness the way others can. But I recognize it. It’s undeniable. He’s connected to something divine. Axis: Bold As Love isn’t considered as iconic as Are you Experienced? or Electricladyland, but it’s his most arresting to me. Each track is a gem. And Little Wing is the one that singlehandedly slays me. It’s been recorded epicly by so many music greats that it’s easy to forget how brief the original actually is. It’s over before you know it, but not before you’re propelled into Jimi’s world of wild imagery and sensual psychedelia, and yet in a slow, blue, gentle way. His Little Wing is succubus, mother, and guardian angel all at once. It stops my heart every time.
I’ve always dreamt of being the “she” in this piece of perfection.
“Little Wing” from Axis: Bold As Love
(Actually this is not from the album, it’s a live version, as his album recordings are impossible to find on YouTube. )
16. Pink Floyd’s The Wall
I’d already been intimate with Dark Side of the Moon, and knew these guys were special. But The Wall obliterated my sense of what was allowed. Yes, there is The Who’s Tommy. And The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. And there’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And Ziggy Stardust. And the list goes on and on, of grand concept albums. Most of these I did not get wind of till deep into my adulthood. So my first encounter with an album that was more than just a collection of complimentary tracks, that told a singular story, and celebrated a kind of emotional arc, was The Wall. It is so grand in its scope, so anciently archetypal in its themes, that it is practically opera. It is gripping, wildly imaginative, burlesque-esque and Wagnerian all at the same time.
“In the Flesh” from The Wall
17. Roberta Flack’s Quiet Fire
This woman is a voodoo priestess on this album. And yet this album actually got lukewarm critical reception when it first released in 1971. I’ve heard “inert” and “without vibrancy” about it. NOT my experience at all. The tracks have an almost emasculating power to them that betrays that soft, silky voice as merely sweet. Hey, hmmmm, a music business run largely by men back in the day. Maybe I’m not the only one who caught wind of a certain castrating-take-no-prisoners element that accounts for its early critical reception. The changes on Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water make their song anthemic here. And Sunday and Sister Jones tells the kind of front porch, campfire, haunted fairy tale that I am obsessed by, especially in the songwriting. Go Down Moses is the true testicle-slaying piece on this album. She never goes full tilt in the melisma department. Doesn’t need to. Her notes are measured, elongated, expressionistic, without showiness, and unequivocally mesmerizing. She puts the mesmer on you as still-standing and stare-downing as all the most effective voodoo priestesses out there.
This is the one that hexes me.
“Sunday and Sister Jones” from Quiet Fire
18. Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones
This album was a revelation for me. The bluesy world that Tom Waits creates, or rather recreates, for us, of the city’s underbelly, is as artful for its bluntness and absence of pretty and clean as it is for the iconic stories he tells, tragic, ironic, funny, and ultimately heartbreaking. Soldier’s Things is no more than a “list song.” But what it lists off says everything about war, and soldiers, and what war does, and what soldiers face when they return, with no more than the rattling off of a list of objects to be sold at a garage sale. This is what Waits can do. And his instrumentation throughout the album reminds me of the old Salvation Army bands, who were clunky and un-nuanced, and that became their artful signature. Waits raises that signature, with barrel-y string basses, and jumbo parade drums with old, withered heads on them, and rickety tack pianos, and rusted washboards, and out-of-tune banjos, and industrial clinks and clangs, as well as his parade of bawdy, lowlife, grotesque, desperate, hanging-by-a-thread characters, to a state of high art. His voice is gin-soaked and growly, and he morphs it from song to song like an actor immersing himself in various characters. And Waits’ pathos is loud and palpable. His spoken word pieces sting, jolt, and make you laugh … but with a weird taste in the mouth for finding them funny. Frank’s Wild Years is maybe his most famous track on this album, his briefest spoken word tome, and yet a movie could be made of this story, for its vivid description and imagery of a certain kind of life, and depiction of being on one’s lowest rung, yet never moving into martyrdom or self-pity. The balance of awful and whimsical is ART. He changed my whole paradigm as a songwriter, giving me the permission to strip away pop confections, rules, and formulas, and to write what was nagging at my gut instead. That he wrote what nagged at his gut is his greatest trick.
Song, slay me now.
“Soldier’s Things” from Swordfishtrombones
19. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman‘s John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
That’s it. That’s the title of the iconic love song album by the eminent tenor player and vocalist of the times. All ballads. All gentle and internal. Only 6 tracks. That would be considered an EP today. Everyone talks about Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett when they talk about the crooners. Few talk about Johnny Hartman. But he was IT for me. His voice is far deeper than those pleasant tenors, betraying a solemnity of spirit. Every song is a heartbreaking gem, and are the hippest choices out of the vast American songbook. He died relatively young, so his canon of works is small compared to his contemporaries, but if he made no other record but this one with Coltrane, that would’ve satisfied the gods more than plenty. A friend of mine, from many moons ago, who was a terrific jazz singer himself, said of the album, after I’d excitedly shared it with him, that he found it dull and without any pep. To each, his own, of course. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how anyone would need pep, or bounce, or whatever my friend felt was lacking, when one is being told a riveting story with an opened heart and exposed nerve. But that’s just me. And that’s exactly what Johnny Hartman does to me. It is the ultimate in romance ballads. Clint Eastwood knows that, as he used nothing but Hartman tracks all throughout his soundtrack to The Bridges of Madison County, which just made me smile so wide. Every track melts my heart, but the one that crushes me is My One and Only Love. Holy God. Wow, I just realized I’m not even talking about Coltrane, and we’ve already established that he’s had an indelible imprint on me. And truly, this album isn’t the same without him. I guess I just know how little Hartman is actually known in the lay world of music lovers. Which is tragic. But, in truth, it is the equal-turf relationship between voice and horn that channels the power and electricity of this sensual, passionate rendering.
Melancholy never sounded so sweet.
“My One and Only Love” from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
20. Danny Kaye’s Stories From Faraway Places
I saved this one for last because I never actually established a rule that the album had to be music. And so this one separates from the others a bit, but I am including it. And music does actually underscore the stories (though I don’t know whom to credit the music). But I can truly say that I have never been more enchanted in my life by any listening experience as a child than by my experience of being taken on captivating adventures the world over, by the soothing, magical, and expressive voice of Danny Kaye. I had the record of him reciting Grimm’s Fairy Tales, singing Hans Christian Anderson, and the Faraway Places album, but it was his narration of fables from Czechoslovakia that I remember most fondly. It also singlehandedly launched my love of narrated stories, and my eventual collection over the years of the many versions of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, with narrators ranging from Sean Connery to Boris Karloff to David Bowie (in disappointing irony, the master of storytelling himself, as I consider Mr. Kaye, never did a rendition of Peter and the Wolf). It’s funny, as an adult I’m a very visual person, and absolutely cannot do my “reading” through audio books, especially fiction. I need to see the words on a page, smell the paper, hold the thing in my hand, luxuriate in the poetry before me, and read each word at my own pace. Maybe even re-read, if a turn of phrase just happens to arrest me. But as a child, Danny Kaye was my exclusive tour guide through wondrous lands and magical worlds, and his voice has always served as balm.
Scary, funny, whimsical. A child’s perfect carnival ride.
“Nail Broth” and “Master Of All Masters” from Stories From Faraway Places
One notable omission that I feel compelled to acknowledge, because of its huge impact in my musician’s life, is that I also happen to be a lover of classical music, having studied and played it for more than a decade as a piano student, and then continuing to listen for my entire life, but I’ve never framed any piece in my mind as part of a seminal album. Such albums do exist. But here’s the thing; I can talk to you about the explosive three movements of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, or the New School experimentations of Ligeti, Cage, and Berg, or the 12-tone rows of Arnold Schoenberg. Or that Bartok and Rachmaninoff were my favorites to play during my years of study. But while there are obviously albums and particular renditions of pieces, the rock stars of those aren’t the composers themselves, or even the symphony orchestras or the soloist performing them (or in the case of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, ACTUAL rock stars).
It’s the conductors. Dude, have you checked out Von Karajan’s Rite of Spring?” “Naw, man Boulez’s is the tightest.”
As much love and reverence as I have for the genre (which I’m using as an umbrella term to encompass Baroque, Romantic, Renaissance, Post-modern, early-20th-century, etc), vast in its scope and depth, and the numerous directional turns in history that it has taken, I could never decipher a conductor’s particular style or voice. I never built that muscle. Alas, that would have to be someone else’s Top 20 list. But if I could take Bach’s Cello Suites or Chopin’s Nocturnes with me to that desert island, I’d be all the happier for it.
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And so, there it is. My 20. And that doesn’t begin to cover it. There is so much artful and iconic music out there. Music that has stirred my soul. I remember my era of nothing but Afro-Cuban music, and saturating myself with the likes of Mongo Santamaria and the mambo king Tito Puente. I recall so fondly my era of all the vocalise masters, with the likes of Eddie Jefferson and Lambert, Hendrix and Ross. I will never forget the era of nothing but the bass gods, your Minguses and your Jacos and your Stanleys (which explains the handful of bass player boyfriends I’ve had). Or the first time I heard Nina Simone bite the heads off no-gooders with her take on Pirate Jenny from The Threepenny Opera, and chilling me to my bone. Or getting my first whiff of ancient folk songs from other countries and cultures, especially from the Irish. Or the shuddering and compelling weirdness of the icelandic Bjork. The Catholic mass sung in pure Congolese that my father bought for me. The prolific and profound contributions of The Beatles. And being blown away by a young boy my own age, who could dance and sing ANYONE off the stage, but sufficed to do his magical thing with his four brothers. Yeah, there’s just no end to what has touched me deeply. Music is a revelation in this life. It calls on the gods, channels the divine, and salves us when we’re broken.
I know I’m a nerd about these things. I hope there are others out there too, who love sharing their favorite whatevers, the favorite whatevers that changed them, uplifted them, defined them. Share it. You never know who’s listening, and who’s diggin’ it.
The late Robin Williams once said: You know what music is? God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, everywhere, even the stars.
Amen. And play on.
Angela Carole Brown is a published author, a recipient of the Heritage Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums as a singer/songwriter, and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on INSTAGRAM & YOUTUBE.