The Joy of Albums

In the last ten years, the iPod, more than anything, has changed how I’ve listened to music. Being able to shuffle through 4000 or more songs lets me hear things in new ways, to hear transitions between songs or styles that I never would have thought to create. It keeps things fresh and allows me to enjoy much more of my music collection than I otherwise might.

At the same time, however, I still love to listen to albums.  While I buy individual songs on iTunes or Amazon, when a new album comes out, I usually buy the CD.  This is in part because of the physicality of it…I like the jewel box, the design, the inserts.  It’s also because I listen to CDs in my car, during my commute to work.  And when I listen to CDs, I tend to listen to them as albums, the way the artists intended.

About a year ago, I responded to one of those requests on Facebook that asked me to list 15 albums that will always stick with me, and I was supposed to list them in the order they occurred to me.  Looking back at it now, it’s a pretty good representation of my desert island discs, but it’s worth looking at the list again, to explore both what’s on it and what isn’t. Here’s the list from a year ago:

1. U2 – Unforgettable Fire
2.The Cure – Disintegration
3. Cowboy Junkies – Black Eyed Man
4. REM – Lifes Rich Pageant
5. The Smiths – The Queen is Dead
6. Billy Bragg – Worker’s Playtime
7. The Eurythmics – 1984
8. Peter Gabriel – Passion: Music from the Last Temptation of Christ
9. Westminster Cathedral Choir – Victoria: Requiem
10. U2 – Achtung Baby
11. The Pogues – If I Should Fall from Grace with God
12. Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
13. Pink Floyd – The Wall
14. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
15. Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head

First of all, U2.  I’ve got two of their albums listed here, but there really should be a third.  I’m partial to The Unforgettable Fire because it was the first album of theirs that I owned, and because the tour was the first time I saw them perform. The album is great from start to finish, and reaches its highest point with Bad, a crescendo that starts with the previous song, 4th of July. Achtung, Baby remains one of their greatest albums, the second major turning point for them in style and production (if you consider Unforgettable Fire to be the first).  Still, I don’t know why I left Joshua Tree off this list the first time, since it’s probably the album of theirs I go to most often when I need a U2 fix.

The Cure’s Disintegration got me through college, or at least through my mood swings in college. From the opening Plainsong and Pictures of You, through Fascination Street, Prayers for Rain, and The Same Deep Water as You, the album takes you up and down a roller coaster of emotions.  One of my favorite things about the album is the liner note that reads, “This album was mixed to be played loud, so turn it up!”.  And I do.

I was introduced to Cowboy Junkies, as many people were, when Trinity Sessions was released.  They performed Sweet Jane on Saturday Night Live during my freshman year of college in 1988, and I thought they were great.  Their fate was sealed, however, when I was given a copy of the CD for Christmas that year, and inside the jewel box was a copy of Alabama’s Greatest Hits. Apparently they were having a bad day at the RCA packaging plant. When I went to the store to exchange it, they didn’t have another copy in stock so I picked up David Bowie’s Greatest Hits and called it a day. They were off of my radar until 1993 when a friend gave me a copy of Black Eyed Man to listen to, and then I was hooked. The album is almost perfect, with one glaring mistake, the track, If You Were the Woman and I Was the Man, which I always skip.  I’ve even removed it from iTunes, so if I choose to listen to the album on my iPod, I don’t have to worry about it.  I recognize that this is somewhat hypocritical, since much of the value of appreciating an album is in appreciating the whole album, but some songs just can’t be forgiven.

As with U2’s Unforgettable Fire, I have a fondness for REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction because it was the first album of theirs that I owned, but when I pick one to listen to, it’s most often Lifes Rich Pageant. It’s the last of their albums that I truly listen to as a whole, since REM suffers more than most bands from what could be called a dichotomy of quality, i.e. they all have songs that I love and songs that I absolutely can’t stand. Nowhere is the extreme more evident than on Automatic for the People, which I consider to be a great album because it has so many good songs, but what were they thinking when they wrote Star Me Kitten?!?

The Queen is Dead is an excellent album, and it meant a lot to me at the time, but I’m not sure I would actually bring it on the proverbial desert island, if only because it would reinforce the loneliness and depression that being stuck on a desert island would already provide me.

This list so far is skewed towards artists and albums from the 80’s and Billy Bragg is no exception.  Many of his albums could be on the list, but I chose Workers Playtime because it was pivotal for me.  It was his first new album since I had gotten to know and love his music, and it was one of the first albums I ever bought on CD.  Musically, I think it’s an interesting departure, softening his style and bringing a new maturity to his lyrics and themes.  I recognize that his voice is not for everyone, but I believe he is one of the best songwriters of his generation.

I’m not entirely sure why I listed 1984 a year ago, other than that this was supposed to be an off-the-cuff list of memorable albums, not necessarily a list of desert island discs. It is, in fact, a great album, a moving soundtrack to a powerful movie. If you haven’t heard it, I suggest you give it a listen.

Two more albums that got me through college, or at least through late night studying and writing papers in my dorm room, are Peter Gabriel’s Passion and the Victoria Requiem, sung by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral in London. The Peter Gabriel is an astonishing piece of work, the soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ.  It’s moody, rich in Middle Eastern instrumentation, and is filled with moments of indescribable tranquility.  The Requiem is a classic of Renaissance polyphony, and David Hill and the men and boys of the Westminster Cathedral Choir draw such sublime beauty out of its many moving parts.

The Pogues are another band from my high school and college years, and once again my album of choice is the one with which I was introduced to the band.  It’s also, I think, their finest effort, adding new cultural influences to their strange mix if Irish folk and punk music.  It includes two of my absolute favorites, Lullaby of London and The Broad Majestic Shannon, as well as one of the few known instances of a slide whistle being used in popular music.

I grew up listening to my parents’s Simon and Garfunkel albums, and Bridge Over Troubled Water was their most mature, most successful album, and sadly, also their last.  The title song showcases Art Garfunkel’s beautiful voice, while The Boxer shows us Paul Simon’s songwriting at its best.  Other tracks like Cecilia and El Condor Pasa are among their best-known works, and I was a huge fan of The Only Living Boy in New York long before Zach Braff returned it to some popularity in the film, Garden State.

I had many arguments (discussions?) with my parents as a teenager about the quality of the music I listened to. I think my father’s gripe was as much with band names (The Cure, Simple Minds, etc) as with the music itself, although he remained convinced until the day he died that Morrissey could only sing in thirds.  Pink Floyd’s The Wall, was an example, for me, that popular music could utilize many of the same tools of musical composition that your average classical symphony or opera  might, including repetition and revision of musical themes, complex lyrics and storylines, and of course, lots of screaming kids.

If The Wall was a rock opera, then The Hazards of Love is a Folk Opera, so described by Colin Meloy, lead singer and songwriter for The Decemberists.  Hazards is an amazing work, a juxtaposition of styles  handled extremely gracefully across a story that draws from English folk tales and Meloy’s own stunning imagination. Certainly the album is one of the band’s finest works, even if it’s not the most accessible.  And like The Wall, it’s not an album you ever want to listen to on shuffle.

Coldplay is a band that gets a fair amount of grief, perhaps for being less musically challenging than their biggest influence, U2, perhaps for having achieved a tremendous amount of fame and fortune quickly, with a sound that on its surface seems remarkably lacking in complexity.  I will admit to not liking Coldplay at all when I first heard them, and it wasn’t until X&Y came out that I began to listen to both the new music and the two earlier albums.  What I found was an unexpected depth of feeling to their music, lyrics, and overall sound that surprised me. Chris Martin and friends have the ability to take a repeated chord or other seemingly simple musical phrase and imbue it with an emotional fervor that few other bands can match. The unfortunate thing, I think, is that they haven’t been able to reproduce that quality quite as well in their later work. The more recent albums are still good, but don’t meet the high standard set by A Rush of Blood to the Head. From the pounding chords that open Politik to the gentleness of Amsterdam, there are few albums I listen to more.