Tuesday, September 28, 2010

15 Albums

Responding to a tag from a friend, the task is to name 15 favorite albums. As arbitrary as ever, listed largely in the order they occurred to me. Each one, aside from being personal pleasures, are inducements to sanity and vital pieces of misinformation that make humans look better than they really are.


A. Pavement Crooked Rain Crooked Rain

B. Otis Redding Otis Blue

C. Yeah Yeah Yeahs Fever to Tell

D. De La Soul De La Soul is Dead

E. Duke Ellington Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band

F. Billie Holiday Lady Day: The Master Takes & Singles

G. Blondie Parallel Lines

H. Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers L.A.M.F.

I. New Order Power, Corruption & Lies

J. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook

K. Frank Sinatra The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952

L. The Go-Betweens Oceans Apart

M. Charlie Parker The Yardbird Suite

N. Buzzcocks Singles Going Steady

O. Phil Spector Back to Mono (1958-1969)


A. I would love Crooked Rain Crooked Rain just for the line in "Range Life" where Malkmus sings "The Stone Temple Pilots/They're elegant bachelors/They're foxy to me are they foxy to you?" but that's only one of many moments where Malkmus ambles into hilarious moments of grace.

B. I could pick any of Redding's albums from Pain in My Heart to The Immortal Otis Redding (and the last two posthumous collections, Love Man and Tell the Truth, aren't bad either), but Otis Blue has the best cover (just about the only time a record company pulled the whole 'let's put a blond white woman an album by an African-American recording artist' trick without embarrassing themselves) so I guess it wins because of that, but also because "I've Been Loving You Too Long" is the greatest vocal performance of Redding's career, and his recording of "Satisfaction" renders the Stones version absolutely useless.

C. Maybe it's too soon for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and I can see how some of their mannerisms might grate, but then again maybe I can see better how their mannerisms might seem like symptoms of a rational cynicism that felt more intelligent than hope or desperation during the last decade.

D. Perhaps De La Soul is Dead should be held accountable for the proliferation of skits that have ruined many a hip hop album, but De La Soul is Dead is the first and just about the last time the skits are as funny and necessary as the songs, and the songs are very funny and very necessary.

E. The recordings collected in the Never No Lament set often sound like the summit of human civilization, every second a testament to taste, composure, and wit.

F. Billie Holiday represents the kind of human mystery that breaks my heart, because every decision she makes about phrasing and interpretation across the late 30s/early 40s recordings collected in the above set indicates a level of insight and genius neither you or I or the person in the next room can ever hope to touch, but every decision she made in her personal life was the wrong one. Maybe somebody misinformed her at a young age that they gave Nobel Prizes in self-destruction, and so she applied her considerable skill there too.

G. I love the unapologetic trashiness of Blondie, so redolent of the Bazooka Joe faux-populism of punk, and smart enough to recognize in disco merely another another expression of that sensibility, patterns of thought which all come together on Parallel Lines.

H. L.A.M.F. is the great lost punk album of 1977, a masterpiece of strung out theories about civilization and its discontented hangers-on from the New York Dolls guitarist and F.O.D.D., Johnny Thunders.

I. That New Order album makes the work of mourning in the age of mass communication sound so damn sexy.

J. Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter were, as the cliché goes, an ideal match of sensibilities. It's often said all the Songbooks are great, but I find the Gershwin collection relatively dull, and I think the sarcastic, mercenary temperament at the heart of many of Irving Berlin's lyrics is something she just didn't get and thus often didn't know how to phrase (I really dislike her reading of "Let's Face the Music and Dance"), but Porter's songs are guides to how to waltz through the suffering and heartbreak the world pushes at you without breaking a sweat, and that sensibility was always Fitzgerald's special benediction as a performer, so everything comes together beautifully here.

K. I know many who say the Columbia Years just aren't as interesting as the Dorsey recordings, where Sinatra found his voice, or the Capitol years, where he reconstructed it, but there's something to the smooth, lavender quality in Sinatra's sound throughout most of these songs that counts as a particular kind of perfection. And I'm as suspicious of the claims made on behalf of perfection as anybody, but sometimes perfection can be, you know, nice, and this is often very, very nice.

L. The Go-Betweens are sometimes my favorite rock band, and Oceans Apart would rarely be the album I'd name as my favorite, but I have been listening to it a lot in the past two months, and despite the most godawful mastering job I've ever encountered, I keep coming back to it rather obsessively. It was to be their last album, and it sounds like an accidental testament, a wonderful encapsulation of their sensibility and the range of their sonic ideas, which somehow the muddy mastering just renders all the more incisive.

M. Charlie Parker would be the best argument ever made on behalf of the pure pleasure of virtuosity for its own sake, except plenty of feeling and humor backs up every outburst, so I'm once again saved from having to make moral allowances for genius.

N. I've challenged myself to say something about each of these albums, but I have nothing to say about the Buzzcocks. Just that they're loudly wonderful and sublimely frivolous and very desperate.

O. And in light of recent events, let's just say my love of the Spector recordings might have a little less to do with Spector than the title of the box set would indicate, and more to do with Ronnie Spector's proto-punk goddess presence, or Darlene Love's determination to sing the only Christmas song anyone will ever need to hear, or Carole King & Gerry Goffin having the nerve to write "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)." I mean, there are dozens of reasons why I sometimes play songs from the set obsessively, and most of them have nothing to do man whose name and face graces the box. Though sure, he probably had something to do with it all. Why else would they put his face on the box?