I had intended to add a word or two of praise or explanation after each entry on this list. I made a sparkling start.
- ABBA: Abba Gold
- Fast songs: for nights entertaining your Australian friends, or playing with the dressing-up box. Slow songs: a pop-music version of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.
Then I thought, That's enough of that nonsense. How many times can you write "Superb," "Beautiful," "Stomping," or "Absolutely tangerine" before it loses all meaning? How many times do you need to read: "Masterpiece"? Or, better still "Masterpiece . . . ?"
Instead, I decided to also name the tracks that make these albums special to me. So, if nothing is written, head straight for the title track or assume that the whole damned thing is irresistible. When in doubt, play Track 4 — it is usually the one you want.
Here are 500 albums that can only improve your life. Many will be quite familiar, others less so. Ever needed to get rid of unwanted guests in the early hours? Just reach for Dirk Bogarde's Lyrics for Lovers, on which the actor inhales audibly on his cigarette before reciting Ira Gershwin's "A Foggy Day" amid a swathe of violins. Then there are the good records.
It was impossible to choose just one title by Miles Davis, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Mingus, etc. How can you say Miles Ahead is "in" and Sketches of Spain is "out"? It looked that way for a while. I knew I would need the space for In a Silent Way and On the Corner. In the end Sketches of Spain did make it, but only at the expense of Someday My Prince Will Come. That is the pleasure of a list like this. Everyone will disagree with your choices.
Sometimes an album contains just one indispensable song. Shot of Love may not be your favorite Bob Dylan record, but it might contain his best song: "Every Grain of Sand." Other albums are like sets of chairs. You can't break them up. This is true of the Band's first two records and also of Tom Waits's trilogy of albums, which began with Swordjshtrombones.
There are plenty of "Best of" and "Greatest Hits" collections. That's not just taking the easy way out. Many of these people really only made "singles." No one "album" will give you all the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles or George Jones songs that you need. I've also gone for some less well-known titles by famous artists, but they are records that dig a little deeper.
You should be able to find most of this music, but you may have to go out of your way to locate the records of David Ackles, perhaps the greatest unheralded American songwriter of the late 60s.
This is also a list of where I began and where I stopped listening. There are huge gaps and blind spots. Unsurprisingly, I favor songwriters over players, but any hit parade of great singers would have to include Johnny Hodges. Making this list made me listen all over again.
If your shelf can stand it, I recommend a few boxed sets. Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by the great Harry Smith from rare 78s seems like a trip to another planet, yet it is really just humans singing and playing in the not-so-distant past. The RCA Ellington set runs to 24 CDs, and the Schubert lieder collection is only a little smaller, but they are a bit like having a Complete Works of Shakespeare close at hand.
The Yazoo label's Secret Museum of Mankind series gives a glimpse of the early days, when HMV or the Gramophone Company would send out recording engineers to gather music from the world for the new, curious audience. These editions are not compiled by country. So, they may begin in the Society Islands, travel to Mongolia via Bulgaria, and end up in Nova Scotia. The world that you will hear probably isn't there anymore.
I sometimes torture myself by considering all the musicians who were still performing during my lifetime but whom I failed to see because I was too stupid, too timid, or too preoccupied with some passing fancy. Records can fix some of that. It's a form of time travel. You can hear Lester Young or Bing Crosby close in on the microphone in a way that we now take for granted and regularly abuse. The 30s recordings of Stravinsky reveal him directing a band of musicians who are clinging to the edges of his new, frightening music. Ornette Coleman's "Peace" is a thing of beauty that was once a minor outrage.
The classical recordings are listed by composer; that is not to say that any version of that piece will do. Great vintage recordings sit alongside new releases by artists whom you can actually hear in concert. These are the performers who opened up this music to me. In the end, it is the music of forgiveness in the last act of Le Nozze di Figaro or the way an incomplete Schubert sonata breaks off in a devastating way that matters more than whether the performance was captured digitally or with some sealing wax and a knitting needle. There is a song setting by Hugo Wolf, "Alles Endet, Was Entstehet." The text concludes:
"We too were men joyful and weary like you, and now we are lifeless, we are only earth, as you see. All that is created must end. All, all around us must perish."
These words are by Michelangelo.
The minute this list goes to press I will think of 20 records that I left out. There are no comedy records, unless you count Louis Armstrong's magnificent nine-minute performance of all of the verses of "Let's Do It." In fact, no real spoken-word recordings are included — it was too hard to choose among Richard Pryor, T. S. Eliot, and Bill Hicks. Groucho Marx makes it on the strength of his rendition of "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady."
If you look in the C's, you won't find anything with my name on it. This is not false modesty. There are at least 500 records better than everything that I've made. I do make a few walk-on appearances as vocalist or producer.
You will see that some very famous names are missing completely. There is nothing at all by Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Michael Jackson, or Sting. You may love them. They just don't do it for me. There's not too much disco or dance, except the mighty Chic. If you want something from Los Angeles in the early 70s, I suggest you purchase the first Jackson Browne record; it will save you buying all those Eagles albums. The "Fleetwood Mac" herein is the great group led by Peter Green, not the Californian mob with Stevie Nicks. There is nothing to speak of from the 80s, the decade that music forgot, except for Robert Wyatt. Not many "Divas," except for Callas and Aretha.
As for the hit records of today, maybe some of them will sound just fantastic in 20 years' time. It's your life. So! No Marilyn, Puffy, Korn, Eddie Money — sorry, Kid Rock — Limp Bizkit, Ricky, Britney, Backstreet Boys, etc., etc.
The best record of today that I could find was The Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem, faster, funnier, and, in an odd way, more truthful than most records. It's up there with the best of The Simpsons, and I mean that as the highest compliment.
There are probably songs being composed right now that will eclipse every entry on this list in somebody's heart or mind. It is my experience that music is more like water than a rhinoceros. It doesn't charge madly down one path. It runs away in every direction.