What was supposed to be an off-the-cuff post turned into a multi-week, all-consuming research project. If you make it to the end of this, you will conclude two things: 1) that I love music and 2) that I’m completely, hopelessly anal. I celebrate both qualities.
I’m turning 50 this summer. I naively thought that putting together a list of the 50 albums that have defined me over these many (MANY) years would be a fairly straight forward task. I like making lists. I like records. Peas in a pod. And the process started out smoothly enough, but each time I reached #50, I’d suddenly remember one or two that I’d forgotten. “Oh no, what about Purple Rain?”
Then there were 60 and 70 and 80 and yes, I’m that OCD.
I decided to set some rules (I like rules). Namely, I made myself actually listen to each record, not just bask in its memory. It still had to sound good to my soon-to-be-fifty-year-old ears.
It’s probably true that many of our once enamored perspectives falter under the scrutiny of experience. Especially if you’re being honest with yourself. Not surprisingly, my initial list began to unravel. Did I love Purple Rain because of the music, or because it came out the summer after I graduated high school? And oh, what a summer it was. The late night cruising with my best friend. The tumult of girlfriends. Beyond the lyrics of “Darling Nikki,” did I really care about the song? And more importantly, when was the last time I actually listened to that record? A decade? This may sound scandalous, but his recent death notwithstanding, I hadn’t heard Prince in years. That was the first clue.
The second clue: I no longer even own a copy of Purple Rain. I concede that in today’s world the concept of ownership is murky at best. Just visit YouTube. But still. I don’t have the LP/CD in my house. It’s not part of my contemporary consciousness. Do I really want to be stuck listening to it for all eternity on this mythical desert island? And furthermore, is that best friend or girlfriend someone I would even want to see now?
Conclusion, I nixed Nikki. The same happened for 20 or 30 other “essential albums” too. Sorry, Beatles.
This led to the next quandary. Do I list the albums that influenced my life or just those that survived it?
And while I’m at it, what about the obvious choices found on every major Best Of list. Where are the classic rock staples like Zeppelin and The Stones? Simple answer: not part of my personal landscape; not represented.
I allowed Greatest Hits collections. When I was young, compilations introduced me to David Bowie and Miles Davis. I’m keeping a few of them in here for that very reason.
What remains is impossible to rank. Each one is so unique.
Disclaimer: It’s assumed that I’ve forgotten at least two amazing, essential albums.
Disclaimer: It’s assumed that you will passionately disagree with some of my omissions.
Without further preamble, here’s my weird list.
The 50 (listed alphabetically):
- Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else
Miles was a guest artist on this album, very rare; he ended up turning the session into his own. The intro to “Autumn Leaves” is one of the greatest in jazz, as is Cannonball’s solo on that tune.
- The Bird and The Bee, The Bird and The Bee [blog]
This LA duo was the best thing to happen in the first decade of the new century. Smart pop. Catchy, unique. Love them to death. Any of their albums could have gone here, but I picked the first one because of its impact. “Would you be my fucking boyfriend?”
- Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
Oh, what is it about being stuck in a cabin in Wisconsin with a guitar and a microphone? The mangled French. The Good Winter. So much mythology surrounds Bon Iver, yet the beauty of the music never wanes.
- David Bowie, Black Star
His final recording and my favorite of his catalog. It’s really just a jazz album with Bowie’s incredible vocals riding over the music. Most of all, you feel the pain of his terminal prognosis. Heart-wrenching and perfect. RIP.
- James Brown, 20 All-Time Greatest Hits! [compilation]
I bought this compilation in 1991 and played it constantly. Life changing.
- The Cars, The Cars [blog]
Reminds me of junior high school, but their ’50s-influenced new wave sound still sounds fresh today. And I love Ocasek’s lyrics. Side B of this album is presented in a continuous segue, a nod to the album rock universe of the ’70s.
- Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore, Naked Lunch (soundtrack)
Mesmerizing. Ornette at his finest. Such an odd movie though.
- Marc Copland & Vic Juris, Double Play
Neither Copland nor Juris are household names and that’s unfortunate. Copland in particular looms large over the way I approach playing. The touch, harmonic concept, empathy: what he does in a duo situation is startling. Then there’s Vic Juris. My goodness, what a tone, what phrasing, rhythmic energy, endless ideas. Together, these two have created one of the most arresting jazz recordings since Bill Evans and Jim Hall recorded Undercurrent (which I’m implicitly including on this list, thank you very much).
- Chick Corea, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs
This is THE piano trio recording. Every jazz pianists swears by it (or should!). Chick set a bar here that no one has yet to reach.
- Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas
This album came at the end of this Scottish trio’s long career, yet it’s the one that made them famous. That fame served as the band’s undoing unfortunately. I still listen to this album regularly. It’s the sound of 1991, a year filled with tumult and questionable decisions, but one I’ll never forget either.
- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, So Far [compilation]
I first heard this album at a fellow Berkeley grad student’s apartment in ’92. There were bongs involved. I went out and bought it the next day and not only did it still sound good, it became one of my favorite CDs. These guys were on a different level from the other hippie bands of the time. I still love it. “Guinevere,” my goodness…
- The Cure, Disintegration
My angsty 20s owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Smith and co. That remorse-laden wall of sound, oh how I used to play it on loop at home, in the car, in my Walkman. Later I would stand backstage at a New York City venue “cyber streaming” their show to an early Internet. I wandered their dressing rooms before they arrived. Candles had been pre-lit. Draped rugs and throws covered every inch of the otherwise sterile confines of the club’s netherworld. I never met them or even saw the concert, but I still have a DAT of the show sitting on a shelf, which I ripped to a ZIP drive, neither of which I can play anymore.
- D’Angelo, Voodoo
The funkiest album of the new generation. Charlie Hunter appears on “Spanish Harlem” with ?uestlove. Nothing like it. Unfortunately, D’Angelo fell into a wormhole of drug abuse after its release–for years he was completely AWOL. Thankfully, he’s back again with a new album.
- Miles Davis, Relaxin’
There are so many seminal albums by this genius of modern music. Where to start? In the mid 1950s he had a five record deal for his quintet with Prestige, most of which he recorded in the same week. It was before he began exploring composition and forms, focusing instead on the so-called Great American Songbook backed by an incredible band that included John Coltrane and Red Garland. Among these, Relaxin’ is my favorite. I could defend this choice but it doesn’t matter. No one would argue that it’s an unworthy recording. Plus, it has a beautiful cover.
- Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism [blog]
This may be my favorite pop/rock album ever. Thanks to Bill Shunn for turning me on to it. The follow up, Plans, is just as extraordinary.
- Deee Lite, World Clique
I remember sitting in my friend’s apartment in 1990 when I first heard this. She said, “they sound like the future.” I agreed and bought it and played it a million times. Sure, they were just co-opting Maceo and Bootsy, in fact those guys are on this album, but so what? Timeless and fun.
- The Doobie Brothers, The Best Of The Doobies (1976) [compilation]
What can I say? Michael McDonald. Those songs. I learned to play Taking it to the Streets in seventh grade from this record. I had the piano book. I saw them in concert four times before I was in 10th grade.
- Brian Eno, Ambient 4/On Land [blog]
My sleeping music for almost twenty years. Eno. Genius of ambient.
- Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel
Mind-expanding modern classical. This work was written for the opening of Houston’s Rothko Chapel. I attended the 40th anniversary concert where they performed it again. Turn the lights out if you listen to this. It’s not background music.
- The Fixx, Reach The Beach
I had my wisdom teeth out in high school. I got an infection, ended up getting really sick. I remember lying in bed with a cassette deck on my chest playing this record over and over. 30 years later I still listen to it regularly. The best of ’80s new wave.
- Peter Gabriel, Passion: Music For Last Temptation of Christ (soundtrack)
Gabriel essentially opened the door for so-called World Music with this album. Passion is a sonic masterpiece. From beginning to end, it holds you locked in its hypnotic spell.
- Kenny Garrett, African Exchange Student
Garrett and Mulgrew (RIP). They proved that even Mack the Knife could burn in the right hands. I once drove him to a Denny’s after a Miles Davis concert in Houston and when we pulled up, he started beat boxing to the rhythm of my windshield wipers. Wow.
- Glenn Gould, The Goldberg Variations (1955)
Including this is also a bit cliche. Yet once again, it’s popular for a reason. Bach’s 30-part variation work is incredible on its own, but with Gould’s electrifying performance you really get a feel for the arc of the thing–the relations of the tempo and themes throughout. This was Gould’s first recording. His last in 1992 was a reprise of this album done with a more somber, thoughtful touch. Worth listening to them both.
- Herbie Hancock, Inventions and Dimensions
Herbie’s albums from the ’60s are all jazz classics. I chose Inventions and Dimensions from 1963 because it’s primarily an improvisational album (no compositions, per se) driven by his interactions with two Latin percussionists, drummer Willie Bobo and percussionist Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez. The unstructured nature of this recording allowed Hancock the freedom to experiment with rhythm and motive development, two of his many trademark talents. It’s truly unlike any other piano album recorded in that decade.
- Herbie Hancock, Thrust [blog]
Released on the heels of his wildly popular Headhunters, Thrust is another in the highly-imitated jazz-funk genre that he essentially invented. I just happen to like these tunes better. Two of them, “Actual Proof” and “Butterfly,” have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years.
- Shirley Horn, Here’s To Life [blog]
In a word, lush. If you haven’t heard this album, turn out the lights and play the whole thing, preferably with the one you love.
- Hospitality, Hospitality
Amazing pop music from 2012. The co-leader, armed with a PhD in music composition from Princeton, cites influences like Morton Feldman (see above) and other heady classical composers. I had no idea about that when I started listening to them and neither will you. It’s infectious and direct. My wife and I swear by these guys. So much fun.
- The Innocence Mission, Glow
This sophomore album, which proceeded their glossy Larry Klein-produced debut, sounded more like a band in charge of their own destiny. Simple melodies. Karen Peris’s haunting voice. The ambience of the production. I followed the band for many years after their major label aspirations faded. Gradually they shifted their focus to expressions of religious faith and raising a child. I admire them for not trying to cling to fame, to follow trends. They’re true musicians and I wish them much happiness. As a footnote, I once sent them a fan email (late 90’s, maybe 2000?) and they wrote me back. It’s the small things people. Thank you.
- Ivy, Apartment Life
Adam Schlesinger (RIP, Covid) hit it big writing the music for the movie Music and Lyrics. But his knack for writing great pop music actually started a decade earlier with this quirky NYC pop trio. One of my favorite bands from the ’90s.
- Freedy Johnson, Blue Days Black Nights
New York singer/songwriter Freedy Johnson casts a hypnotic spell with his spare melancholy. Blue Days Black Nights, as the name suggests, is an album of longing and loss, an album of beautiful pain.
- Keith Jarrett, Bop-Be
A guy gave me this album because he didn’t like it. His loss. This is Jarrett with his American Quartet: Dewey Redman, Paul Motion and Charlie Haden. Jarrett even plays saxophone and on a few tunes and it’s both awful and amazing. Mushi, Mushi!
- Keith Jarrett, Changes
Though it’s now out of print, this three track album is one of my all-time favorite jazz recordings. The title track is a thirty minute trio improvisation. In listening to it the other day, I found myself singing along with most of it. Jarrett, love him or hate him, is a complete genius.
- Milt Jackson, Sunflower
Herbie. Freddie. A wonderful mix of ear candy and improv fire. A 70’s CTI classic.
- Jhno, Kwno
Kwno (“ya know”) is an electronic ambient album with subtle and sophisticated jazz undertones. That’s because its brainchild, San Francisco-based musician Jhno (“john” vs “ya know”), a.k.a., John Eichenseer, is also a jazz musician. At some point, I stopped by his studio to drop something off with my friend Brian who played tablas on this record. I left with a copy of the CD and unexpectedly, it became an instant favorite. Beyond the music, Eichenseer is also a software developer, once employed at the legendary Cycling ’74, placing him in that rare group of dually talented musician/developers like Sergio Salvatore and others. I therefore idolize him.
- Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Sings Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs [blog]
Five classical vocal pieces set to the poems of Neruda. Harrowing for reasons explained in the blog link.
- Cliff Martinez, Solaris (soundtrack)
It’s out of print now, but I linked it to YouTube where you can listen to the whole thing. Martinez, formerly the drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, has emerged as an innovative film composer know for mixing electronics with percussion–this soundtrack features the obscure Hung Drum. The movie was good, the soundtrack was far better. Ambient and hypnotic. I always recognize his music now, which thankfully is getting used regularly in Hollywood.
- Lyle Mays, Lyle Mays
An album that casts a spell with a maze of dense melodies and glorious arrangements. I’ve listened to this album 1000 times in the 30+ years since its release. RIP to my biggest piano hero. He died this year (2020).
- Pat Metheny Group, Still Life (Talking)
Guitarist Pat Metheny has been somewhat of a musical chameleon in the five decades since the release of his startling teenage debut, Bright Size Life. In 1987, Metheny and his long-time musical partner, pianist Lyle Mays (RIP), released Still Life (talking). It’s certainly not what most would classify as jazz. The long, sweeping compositions. Carefully inserted note-perfect solos. World music influences. Hollywood level production. It’s hard to imagine listening to this record that it could ever be replicated in concert but I sat in a sound stage in Manhattan on the last day of a later tour, and yes, they absolutely nail this stuff live. Beyond all the technical achievements here, it’s still a achingly beautiful record, one that enjoyed a fair amount of commercial crossover success.
- Massive Attack, Mezzanine
More ’90s trip-hop. Includes “Teardrop” sung by Cocteau Twins vocalist, Elisabeth Fraser.
- Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Himself
Monk’s solo piano playing is a class of its own. What he does with one chord and a pregnant pause is worth a thousand double time be-bop lines. I’ve never understood people who don’t like Monk.
- Me’shell Ndegeocello, Peace Beyond Passion
1997. My first job in NYC. My cubicle mate was this kid from Brooklyn who played this CD all the time. I was like, um, can I see that? Ndegeocello invented her own style of music here, a variation on soul and jazz that is now being repurposed to greater commercial success by artists like Robert Glasper.
- Stina Nordenstam, And She Closed Her Eyes
Out of print now, I think? Stina enjoyed a small amount of success when one of these songs appeared on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 strange Romeo + Juliet, which is how we discovered her. So happy we did. There was this fall day in 1997 in NYC when Steph and I sat in the living room listening to this record quietly. It was raining. Afterwards, well I’m not sure what happened. But I think it involved restarting the record. Stina has dropped off the radar. Her last public appearance was in 2007.
- Oasis, What’s The Story Morning Glory?
I hear this and I remember driving around Queens with my stoner friend in his VW Rabbit. He had this album on cassette and would listen to it in silence, then afterwards, tell me about the songs he was writing.
- Arvo Pärt, Tabula Rasa [blog]
Every film composer steals from Pärt. Just listen to “Frateres” or “Für Alina” and you’ll see why. Most of this music was written in the ’70s, but it sounds completely new even now.
- Portishead, Dummy
More ’90s trip-hop. Hard to believe this came out in 1994, years before the genre became popular. Still sounds modern.
- Rush, Moving Pictures
I put this on recently and BLAM, I was 15 again. This album got inside my head in such a major way in high school. It’s a guilty pleasure, but I’m owning it. Limelight and Tom Sawyer and YYZ. I mean, what else is there to say?
- Horace Silver, Song For My Father
Silver proved his ability as a be-bop pianist working along side Art Blakey in the 1950s, but on Song For My Father his considerable gifts as a composer took center stage. Indeed, the title track is arguably one of jazz’s most famous melodies (and we all know that Steely Dan stole its bass line). I never understood why Silver didn’t enjoy a resurgence in his career later in life. I once saw his name on the marquee at Yoshi’s (Oakland, Ca) and spun my car around to see about getting in. Luckily I found an open table near the back where I listened to this true master weave his magic for two wonderful hours. Afterwards, I met him and he was so kind. Horace Silver, American master. Legend. Icon. Love him.
- Tears for Fears, The Hurting
It’s 1984. I’m an angsty teenager with a walkman and this cassette is fused to the spindles inside. A girl had broken my heart and “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” becomes my mantra. I think the proof of this album’s importance is the sheer number of covers “Mad World” has enjoyed in the decades since its release. And that’s not even the album’s best song. These tunes are so clever and oh, what a mood it creates in total. Can I also name drop and mention that I once spent a few hours with Curt Smith in the late 90s while working at a fledging internet music startup? He was an incredibly nice, down-to-earth guy.
- Cassandra Wilson, Blue Light ’till Dawn
1993 in Berkeley and this album on loop.
- Stevie Wonder, Songs In the Key Of Life
I debated which of the three or four early ’70s Stevie albums would go here. Decided on this one, but it could just as well have been Innervisions. I bought SIKOL on the day it came out in 1976 (I was ten. Yes, I’m old as fuck).
Naturally, I made a playlist called The 50 on Spotify of those that are available. For those that aren’t (out of print or restricted by artist), I linked them to YouTube above.
Sorry, but I can’t quit yet.
Here’s the 50 that almost made it. I felt guilty. I had to list them anyway. So much for restraint. They’re all really great albums, though. Besides, with 50 swelling to 100, I figure I just increased my life expectancy.
- Antony and the Johnsons, I Am A Bird Now [blog]
- The Bird and The Bee, Recreational Love
- Beck, Sea Change
- Bjork, Homogenic
- David Bowie, Changes [compilation]
- Brazilian Girls, New York City
- Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians, Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars
- Broadcast, Tender Buttons
- Can, Flow Motion
- Johnny Cash, I Walk The Line
- Ornette Coleman, Something Else!!!
- John Coltrane, Crescent
- Death Cab for Cutie, Plans
- Lhasa De Sela, La Llorona [blog]
- Depeche Mode, Violator
- Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
- Thomas Dolby, Golden Age of Wireless
- Brian Eno, Ambient 1/Music for Airports
- Bill Evans and Jim Hall, Undercurrent
- Peter Gabriel, So
- Herbie Hancock, Mr. Hands [blog]
- Donny Hathaway, Live (1972) [blog]
- PJ Harvey, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
- Billie Holiday, Lady in Satin
- Dave Holland, Extensions
- Jana Hunter, Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom
- Hank Jones, Upon Reflection: The Music Of Hank Jones
- Icehouse, Icehouse [blog]
- k.d. lang, Ingénue
- Curtis Mayfield, Superfly
- Lyle Mays, Lyle Mays
- Pat Metheny Group, Offramp
- Pat Metheny, Bright Size Life
- Thelonious Monk, Underground
- Morcheeba, Who Can You Trust?
- Me’shell Ndegeocello, Comfort Woman
- Oumou Sangare, Worotan
- Pinback, Pinback
- Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here
- Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet
- Stereolab, Dots and Loops
- Radiohead, The Bends
- Todd Rundgren, With a Twist…
- Tin Hat Trio, Helium
- Tricky, Pre-Millennium Tension
- Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico
- Patrick Watson, Adventures in Your Own Backyard
- Sonic Youth, Goo
- Stevie Wonder, Music of My Mind
- Stevie Wonder, Innervisions
Like I said, 1) loves music, 2) is totally anal.
I’ve really enjoyed revisiting a lifetime of music in writing this post. In the end, I started to observe a basic pattern in what survived. The good stuff for me has its own atmosphere. It’s hypnotic, transportive, sturdy. I can do little else when I listen to these albums, i.e., I’ve gotten very little done this week. Well worth it though 😉
Okay, to reward you for reading this far, I have a present for you. Actually, it’s a present to yourself. Undertake this same exercise and post about it. You may be surprised by what you learn. And also, I’ll feel less like a total music nerd if you do the same.