Ask a journalist what she or he wants for lunch, and she or he will wax on for at least 20 minutes about their options or lack thereof. Really, ask a journalist for their opinion about anything, and you'll likely get more answer than you might've preferred.
Unless you ask them to come up with their top five record albums of all time.
I posed this question to my colleagues recently, after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation announced this year's inductees (see sidebar). They reluctantly agreed to make such an unholy list. After all, one's top five is personal and subjective — one person's Dylan bliss is another person's personal circle of hell. One assumes great vulnerability in making such a list as the selections thereon provide as much character study as good arguments for great musicianship. And really, only five records? (Most of us managed to keep it within five...)
Still, after much teeth-gnashing, fretting and revision, we came up with the following lists of those albums that guarantee, for us, instant zen and/or happiness for whatever reason: good cohesion, poignant lyrics, absurd guitar-playing, all of the above. We welcome your picks in the online comments section.
Rustic Overtones, "Rooms By The Hour" - I first saw Rustic Overtones play a show my freshman year in college, and they've been my favorite band ever since. A few weeks after our daughter was born, my wife and I drove to Maine to see them perform this album live 15 years after it was released.
As Fast As, "Destroy The Plastique Man" - Even after hearing it hundreds of times, this is one those albums that gets better every time I hear it. While there are individual songs that I like better on previous albums, this is one that I can listen straight through over and over again. Probably the best live show I've ever seen was the release party for this album. The image of the band bursting on stage in white coveralls is still seared into the back of my eyeballs.
Pearl Jam, "Ten" - Probably the one album that most shaped my taste in music, and fashion, based on one listen through during the first weeks of my freshman year in high school.
Green Day, "American Idiot" - I can't help it. I'm a sucker for the pop/punk sounds of bands like Green Day, blink 182 and Goldfinger. Maybe it's my way of trying to reclaim the rebellious youth that I never had.
Bruce Springsteen, "Born To Run" - Growing up in the '80s, Springsteen was unavoidable, but I never liked him. "Born In The USA" and "Dancing In The Dark" are what I recall from the radio in those days, and they seemed cheesy and old-fashioned to a kid listening to a cassette of "Thriller." Then sometime in the early 2000s I heard Springsteen doing a solo acoustic version of "Born To Run" that revealed an emotional depth in the storytelling that I had never bothered to listen for.
Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Legend" - I get more dewy-eyed and worshipful over Bob Marley than any other pop musician. His ability to conquer the world with a message of love was a tribute to his beautiful voice, his radiant persona and his infectious tunes (you sing along to a ton of them, admit it). The 2002 re-release includes my favorite Marley song, "Coming in From The Cold," and made this two-disc set my pop music favorite.
Beaux Arts Trios, Schubert Piano Trios - For so many of my generation, the original Beaux Arts Trio — Isadore Cohen, Menahem Pressler and Bernard Greenhouse — were the incomparable chamber music ensemble. This 1986 recording of all of Schubert's works for piano trio, but primarily the E Flat and the B Flat, has a pretty sacred spot in my life. Summer evenings on the Vineyard, long drives through freezing rain, good times and bad it has played, both live and in my head, and never disappoints.
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Strauss: Four Last Songs; 12 Orchestral Songs - A singer who can make an almost imperceptible catch in her phrasing more emotive than an all-out Italianate gasp, no singer ever finds more meaning in these incomparable songs. There are singer's with bigger, warmer and lusher voices, but Schwarzkopf sets the standard. Combining The Four Last Songs with orchestral settings of Strauss favorites such as "Zueignung" and "Morgen," this 1966 set is one I always return to.
John Eliot Gardiner and English Baroque Soloists, Mozart Symphonies 40 & 41 - John Eliot Gardiner kicked down the temple that enshrined Beethoven's symphonies with his career-making 1990 set, but this 1989 recording redefines these two great Mozart symphonies. Fiercely aggressive and rhythmically driven, Gardiner's versions make all others seem pokey and bland to me. The hair-raising finale to the G Minor symphony, with full repeats, is Mozart at his most exciting, always fresh.
Bach: Variations Goldberg by Maria Tipo - As much as I was smitten in my youth by Glen Gould's take-no-prisoners attack on the Bach keyboard scores, it is not a Canadian, an Austrian or a German who owns first prize in my extensive Bach disc collection. Neapolitan Maria Tipo's 1986 Goldbergs endlessly charm me. When she disconnects her hands in the rigorous counterpoint, it sounds as if her left hand is singing to her right, and there are moments that, I swear, make me think of a Scriabin sonata. This disc is in constant rotation.
Vincenzo Bellini, Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, Richard Bonynge and London Symphony Orchestra, "I Puritani" - The greatest duo since Flagstad and Melchior, Sutherland and Pavarotti recorded all the great bel canto operas, then turned to the heart of the Verdian repertoire, on London records conducted by Bonynge (who had the smarts to cement his conducting career by marrying Sutherland). On many, like this 1987 "I Puritani," they are joined by baritone Nicolai Ghiaurov. This is absolutely Pavarotti at his best (complete with a full-voice high D), and it had been my favorite opera recording for years.
The Beatles, "Abbey Road" - There are some who say the Beatles should be automatically disqualified from any top album list simply because such a claim is indisputable and well-established. I say give credit where it's due.
Unlike many things, I can remember where I was when I first heard "Abbey Road." I was about 17, it was a hot summer day, and I was in a car packed with pals with nowhere in particular to go.
The B-side of the album is what really did it, with its movements and drama, celestial tones, and cheeky ending. Plus, the whole record opens with "Come Together," one of rockdom's coolest songs. Case closed.
The Pixies, "Doolittle" - The first album by the Pixies I ever heard remains near and dear. I often think of music in terms of who "gave" it to me, and "Doolittle" came from a high school boyfriend who I thought was so nifty for having such cosmopolitan college rock tastes. And that fact that the Pixies' bassist is a woman delighted me all the more.
"Doolittle" is what happens when you mix punk rock with post-modern ethos and musicians who can play more than three chords. "Doolittle" moves quickly, it's upbeat, it's weird, and it rocks. PS. Kurt Cobain went on record as saying the Pixies heavily influenced his songwriting. So there.
The Beastie Boys, "Hello Nasty" - I know, it's more cool to say "Paul's Boutique," but there are few records I can listen to over and over in a loop, and "Hello Nasty" is one of them. The Beasties are in top form on this jubilant record, and with the addition of Mixmaster Mike, they produced the most body-movin' of records — with substance!
David Bowie, "The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" - I hear "concept album" and I get a little nervous (see also: "Tommy" by The Who). But if all concept records were like "Ziggy," I'd have no reason to fear. I'm not sure what exactly about it gives me religious rapture — the variety of songs? The passion of young Bowie? The fact that one of the coolest songs of all time is on it? ("Suffragette City.") Maybe it's when I actually absorbed the following line from "Five Years," an unlikely place to find innocent boy-meets-girl sentiment: "I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour/Drinking milk shakes cold and long/Smiling and waving and looking so fine/Don't think you knew you were in this song."
The Magnetic Fields, "69 Love Songs," vol. 3 - OK, technically this is another concept album, but only in that all THREE volumes of it feature songs about love - and what we learn is that love is many things: kind, maddening, meaningless, exciting and intoxicating, not unlike jazz or a bottle of gin. Volume three of the collection, for me, packs the most punch — every song is so different from the next, but they're all quick, clever and unlike anything you've ever heard before — it's like a big cabaret act. Songwriter Stephen Merritt is wildly creative in the studio and his fantastic songwriting combines whimsy, brutal honesty and smart juxtaposition.
The Stone Roses, "The Stone Roses" - Released in 1989 in Britain the Stone Roses' still astonishing debut album is the most successful and enduring blend of indie pop and dance music.
John Squire's guitar playing doesn't just jingle and jangle, it swerves and loops around drummer Reni's propulsive, funky beats.
What keeps me coming back for now 26 years is the album's expansive optimism. The hopscotching intro to "Waterfall" still sounds like an awakening and "I am the Resurrection" comes close to convincing you that one really can live forever. And of course there's the key lines to the joyous "She Bangs The Drums," "Kiss me where the sun don't shine/ The past was yours but the future's mine." When you hear that line as a 13-year-old kid, it's a call to arms. And, believe me, it is still at 36.
"Rainy Day" - Rainy Day was a one-off collaboration between several members the Los Angeles "paisley underground" scene, a loose congress of bands that had affinity for flowery psychedelia and the black leather drone of Velvet Underground. David Roback, who would become the guitar player in Mazzy Star, perhaps the most famous band to emerge from the era, assembled a group of musicians, including the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs, to record some covers including the Velvets' "I'll Be Your Mirror," Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine," and Big Star's "Holocaust." I hadn't heard any of those songs when I got a dubbed cassette copy of the album in 1991, so for many years I considered them definitive versions.
The Feelies, "The Good Earth" - Sometimes your favorite albums aren't the ones that make all of the "best of lists." The Feelies in 1980 released their essential debut, "Crazy Rhythms," a mix of hyper-caffeinated guitars and manic, tribal drumming. It's rightly acclaimed; buy me a beer and I'll acclaim it for you. But six years later, the Feelies regrouped to record the "The Good Earth," a quieter, pastoral affair produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. Largely acoustic, it doesn't announce its presence like "Crazy Rhythm," but it still achieves its predecessor's velocity on cuts such as "When Company Comes" and "Slipping (Into Something)."
The National, "Alligator" - I have a passionate wrong-for-me, wrong-for-you love affair with "Alligator" that I can't explain to any of my friends. The album that truly established The National is often lyrically opaque and inscrutable while the music recalls Nick Cave and some of R.E.M.'s murkier moments. At times, it's a hard charging battering ram of an album like on "Abel," where singer Matt Berninger is virtually screaming "my mind's wind open," but get I more engrossed when things get darker, such as on the plangent "Baby, We'll Be Fine." I just know it's totally not going to end well.
Billy Bragg, "Workers Playtime" - Released in 1988 to middling reviews, "Workers Playtime" is often seen as Billy Bragg's first misstep, but I think it's perhaps his most overlooked album. Throughout the '80s Bragg rose to prominence, in the UK anyway, as a one-man band, launching pro-union and socialist barrages into Margaret Thatcher's ship of state. This was his first effort with a full band and tended to highlight the other Billy Bragg, who wrote witty love songs, and it's those that keep me returning to "Workers Playtime."
I hate to be that kid who, unless he gets his way, takes his football and pouts all the way home. But, when asked by my pal Marisa Nadolny to submit to the Desert Island Discs, and learned her limit was five albums, I took my football and pouted all the way home.
"Can't do it," I said.
This Desert Island thing is a construct I've been asked about a million times and I've struggled with for years. I'd rather eat all the sand on the island's beach and die of, ah, sandulation than to leave a Favored Album out, so Nadolny granted me a dispensation and allowed me to pick 10 discs. Still, it's very hard.
Nektar, "Remember the Future" - This is a space-opera in two parts, and each consists of tantalizing and breathtakingly melodic segments that flow from one to the next in the fashion of the second side of "Abbey Road." Clustered harmonies, exceedingly clever arrangements and instrumentation, and a fusion of scintillating hard rock and lonely melancholy. I've said it for years: maybe the greatest rock album of all time.
dada, "dada" - A California trio that combines the poppy side of Cream with Everly Brother-on-acid vocals. Every song on this album is a small masterpiece of construction and inspiration and pinball from wounded vulnerability to hilariously jaded.
Crowded House, "Farewell to the World" - When leader Neil Finn decided to pull the plug on The House, thousands and thousands travelled from all over the world to see this last performance outside the Sydney Opera House. As a testament to the overpowering quality of their studio albums and the band's whimsical spirit of brotherhood, it's a wistful, gorgeous triumph.
Porcupine Tree, "Fear of a Blank Planet" - PT fluently juggles brutal metal and heart-melting balladry with martial arts instrumentation and moon glow sound-vistas — all in service to Steven Wilson's six-song cycle about a bleak future for the over-medicated, hyper-stimulated kids of the new century.
Rory Gallagher, "Irish Tour '74" - The Irish guitar genius took his finest-ever band into Northern Ireland when The Troubles were ripping the country apart and bands were too frightened to play there. Incredibly passionate performances and with blowtorch versions of some of Gallagher's best songs including "Cradle Rock," "Walk On Hot Coals" and "Tattoo'd Lady."
Wishbone Ash, "Argus" - The act that birthed twin-guitar harmonies, The Ash quilted their hard rock and prog instincts with astounding vocal hooks and a nod to British folk tradition. "Argus" is a flawless record; you've never heard another band or song that made you say, "Hey, that sounds like 'Argus'" because it's that unique.
The Neville Brothers, "Live on Planet Earth" - If you saw the Nevilles at Tipitina's or closing Jazz Fest in the '80s or early '90s, you saw maybe the finest live band in the world - so good that only one or two of their studio albums have come close to doing capturing their concert skills. In that spirit, "Planet Earth," recorded at various spots on a world tour at the height of their sorcery, is wonderful party music for your beach residency.
The Moody Blues, "To Our Children's Children's Children - Toss a coin between this and "On the Threshold of a Dream." None of their big hits, but a few mini-suites, butterfly-wing melodies, brainy and imaginative arrangements and songs such as "Out and In," "Gypsy," "Eternity Road," "Watching and Waiting" ... The high school album that will always stay with me.
Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays, "As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls" - The side-long title track is an ambient ghostscape, slowly building into an autumnal, four-song exultation that sounds like Bill Evans scored a Dia de los Muertos festival. I'll bet I've listened to this a thousand times — and always in the months of September or October. It just has that quality.
Toy Matinee, "Toy Matinee" - Long past the golden era of prog rock, and long before its recent resurgence, this project, headed up by the late Kevin Gilbert, is a smooth-flowing masterpiece with zero filler. It's easy on the ears — reminiscent of early Genesis — and the songwriting and musicianship are inventive and accomplished.