Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Desert Island Discs

Originally posted on an iWeb log on Sunday, March 4, 2001

This list was started long ago, before I even owned a computer.  I finally committed it to an electronic format on the date above.  The list is still not finished but, in all honesty, I'm not sure such a list can ever really be finished.  Here it is in its current form.

I’m one of these people that, when packing for a trip, tries to bring something for any weather.  I suppose it would be no different in choosing musical selections for the proverbial desert island.  Truth be told, I found it an absolutely grueling task to narrow my list of favorites down to a reasonable number for the trip.  I could have easily come up with at least 10 selections for each category, yet I wanted to spread my selections out across various genres (ie, pack for any weather.)  Anyway, these would be the discs I would want to bring to my desert island.


  • Miles Davis – Kind of Blue   This is the record that opened up the world of (real) jazz to me.  I mean that literally, too, as it was also my introduction to Bill Evans, “Cannonball” Adderly, and John Coltrane.  It is a masterpiece of improvisation, yet subtle enough to make great background music for a candlelit dinner.  Genius, this, and not one I am likely to tire with if the rescue missions fail.
  • Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington – The Great Summit   How on earth do you pick a single recording from the gigantic catalogs of both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington?  Simple.  Pick this one.  Armstrong and his band meet in a studio to cover a selection of Ellington standards and Duke joins them on piano.  Great Summit, indeed.  World leaders should have taken note.
  • Billie Holiday – Songs for Distingue Lovers  An amazing recording of a very moving session.  Some prefer Billie’s earlier recordings but this pushes all the right buttons for me.  Band members for this intimate session include Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Sweets Edison, and Barney Kessel.  This, to me, is Billie Holiday at her peak.
  • Lester Young, Roy Eldridge & Harry Edison – Laughin’ to Keep from Cryin’  Speaking of Eldridge and Edison, how about we put them in a room with the great Lester Young and see what happens?  This album is a gem from the marvelously tender cover photograph to the glorious music between the grooves.
  • Kelly Joe Phelps – Roll Away the Stone  The most moving, nearly religious experience I can remember having while listening to music.  This guy's playing and singing on this album convince me that he truly feels the power of the music passing through him.  He is, for lack of better phrase, channeling.  When you hear this music, you can't help but be drawn into the same trance.
  • Muddy Waters – Folk Singer  This is Muddy’s “unplugged” record, recorded in 1963, long before MTV even existed.  The sessions were sparse and every note is accurately recorded, with the occasional misstep lending authenticity to the proceedings.  Muddy sang and played acoustic guitar, accompanied by a young Buddy Guy on second acoustic guitar, Willie Dixon on standup bass, and Clifton James on drums.  As this was Muddy’s original style, the record feels effortless and free.  It’s just a gem of a record and, although I own many of his on both LP and CD, this is definitely the one I want on my island.
  • Howlin’ Wolf – Moanin’ in the Moonlight  The Wolf’s first album was essentially a collection of sides he recorded in the early 50s.  His second album, titled Howlin’ Wolf, is primarily a collection of his versions of Willie Dixon blues standards.  As such, it’s an absolute gem.  However, I picked his third album for the trip because the big man put much more of a personal stamp on it.  If I’m not bringing it for my personal enjoyment, playing Howlin’ Wolf at a decent volume would certainly keep any angry natives away from my tent.
  • Lightnin’ Hopkins – The Complete Prestige/Bluesville Recordings   I’m actually cheating a bit here, since this is a 7 CD box set.  If I were forced to choose, I would probably take disc 2.  Regardless, I would have to bring some Lightnin’ along.  I once heard someone say that the best blues actually makes you feel better.  Lightnin’ Hopkins is proof of that statement.
  • Jeff Beck –Truth  I also wanted to bring a Faces record, but I think I'll just settle for my Rod Stewart fix from this one.  (Yes, there was a tiime when Rod Stewart was not such a schmaltzy putz.)  Besides, as much as I love Ron Wood, Beck is a much better guitar player.  This is one of those albums of perfect synergy between artists.  No album of his (theirs) can hold a candle to this one.
  • Sam Cooke – Night Beat  I absolutely adore Sam Cooke’s voice and delivery.  The problem with most of his recordings, however, is that they are burdened with heavy string arrangements, backing vocals that aren’t nearly back enough, and a general sense of overproduction.  On Night Beat, however, he got it right.  Recorded with a small combo, this has the feel of a smokey, late-night session where the music is being made for the love of it.  Best of all, Cooke’s formidable talents shine through as though that was all that ever really mattered.
  • David Sylvian & Robert Fripp - Damage  A live recording from the tour of their mutual album, 'The First Day'.  That record was a top candidate here, but I chose this instead because it includes some older Sylvian tracks.
  • Talk Talk - Spirit of Eden  or  Laughing Stock  Can I take both?  Please?!  This is music that defies categorization.  It is cerebral and intense, yet often so peaceful it could be the soundtrack of a very pleasant dream.  There are vocals but you almost don't really care what singer Mark Hollis is saying.  This is not the Talk Talk of their days as a pretty good 80s synth-pop band.  It is an incredible listening experience.  Quite possibly ground zero for the "post-rock" subgenre.  Definitely among my Top 5 favorite recordings of all time.
  • Tom Waits – Blue Valentine  How does once choose one Tom Waits record for a desert island?!  There are so many that deserve to come along.  Blue Valentine may not be the most critically acclaimed Waits record, but it's one of my favorites due to some of the memories that come along with it.
  • XTC - Black Sea  The world's smartest pop band?  It wouldn't take much to convince me.  There’s a bit of a toss-up here between this record and the one that followed, English Settlement, but this one wins out on the merits of the cover art
  • Robin Laing – The Angel’s Share   An album by a Scottish folky, it’s full of songs about the pleasures of single malt scotch whisky.  Of course, this would be pure torture if there were no single malts on my island, so you can be sure I’d lobby for them before I even got on the boat.
  • The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues  I debated about whether I should put this one here or under pop/rock.  For much of their career before and after, The Waterboys better fit that category.  After spending the early part of the 80s creating some pretty impressive "big music," leader Mike Scott became so fed up with industry pressure that he lost his muse.  He took off to Ireland with fiddle player Steve Wickham and essentially found a new one.  Fisherman's Blues is unmistakably Waterboys, but it is also a very, very Celtic record.  The title track was used in one of my favorite movies, Waking Ned Devine, during the opening scenes where the camera is flying over beautiful Irish landscapes.
Addendum:  Various reissues of this gem of a record have since been released, containing a vast array of B-sides, session outtakes, and other rarities.  If I have the space in my luggage, I'd take the box set from 2013 with 7 discs and a book!


  • Various/NGDB – Will the Circle Be Unbroken   This is the mother of all bluegrass albums as far as I’m concerned.  In 1972, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band assembled the most amazing collection of bluegrass and old-time musicians alive at the time for a multi-record showcase of traditional American music.  Loaded with great stuff, any fiddle or banjo fix I might need to tend would clearly be satisfied by playing this one.  Oh, and I’d like to bring the LP version so that I can spend time with the multi-gatefold cover while I listen.  My island stereo will have a turntable, right?
  • Steve Earle – Train A Comin’   Partially for its sonic clarity, partially for it’s honesty, and partially for its historical significance this one would have to come along or I’d refuse to go.  Recorded upon Earle's release from jail and first steps toward rehabilitation, this was truly the sound of an artist who had nothing more to lose.   Yet he emerges from his former life of chaos with an absolute gem of an album.  Possibly my favorite recording on this entiere list.  Oh, and I’ll be bringing the original Winter Harvest version, not the E-Squared thing that Earle resequenced, remixed, diminished in the process.
  • Norman Blake – Whiskey Before Breakfast   My introduction to this man’s music was on Steve Earle’s Train A Comin’ album.  My search for more led me to develop a friendship a guy who seemed to know more about Blake’s work than even Norman himself.  He made me several cassettes (none of us were heavy into CD recording at that time) of his albums and this one just jumped out at me as being more special than the rest.  I have since been lucky enough to see Norman Blake perform in the very intimate setting of someone’s living room.  It was shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11th  and was a rather cathartic experience for everyone involved.
  • Gillian Welch & David Rawlings – Acoustic Stage   I have to admit that this is a bootleg recording, and a damn fine one at that!  Recorded from the soundboard during the tour for the Revival album, it mirrors an evening that Cassi and I spent with Welch & Rawlings at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago in 1997.  I don’t think I am taking any liberties by claiming that this was one of the finest shows either of us has ever seen.
  • I absolutely love reggae, I just haven't really worked on this part of the list yet.  More to come, for sure...
  • Djivan Gasparyan – I Will Not Be Sad In This World   Gasparyan is from Armenia, and plays an instrument called the duduk.  This album is a collection of haunting solo pieces, originally released in the USSR in 1983, and has to be one of the most beautiful recordings I have ever heard.  I’d bring this along for my more introspective moments.
  •  More to come here, as well. 

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