The ten CDs on this list have one thing in common: They won’t embarrass you if someone happens to find them in your collection. There’s nothing here by the Brady Kids, or Vanilla Ice, or the Flirts, or Scott Baio. Which is not to say I don’t have some CDs of questionable quality in my cabinet—yes, I own The Best of Foghat—but trust me, owning the ten CDs on this list sets you apart as a person of eclectic and discerning musical taste. Of course, that’s coming from the guy who owns them, so take it for what it’s worth.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, a number of British groups went looking for inspiration in England’s musical past—all the way back to the Elizabethan era. Some groups, like Fairport Convention, used modern instruments to record updated versions of authentic minstrel ballads from that time. Amazing Blondel took a different approach: They wrote original songs that sounded as if they could have been written in the 16th century, and played them on actual instruments from that time period—lutes and crumhorns and whatnot.
This presented a problem in concerts, because the old instruments often required five hours to tune. All Music Guide says “…and unlike many rock acts of the era, if they couldn’t get their instruments in tune, they didn’t perform.”
This CD is a combination of two of their original albums, and it’s on the list because it’s all very mellow, melodic, and peaceful.
As my friend and co-worker Jeff White recently pointed out, one of the things that makes an album great is the memories you associate with it. Gord’s Gold takes me back to the classic long-distance romance of my college years, a passionate relationship with a girl who was born in New Jersey but lived in Michigan, a girl I met in Indiana and later visited in Texas—after she’d spent the summer of 1980 in Kansas. I believe her dad was from Maine. He didn’t like me, but that’s not Gordon Lightfoot’s fault.
Gord’s Gold is a double album of songs GL had released on a number of earlier records, but re-recorded in 1975 with his current band. This album is like a cool summer wind off Lake Superior: It surrounds you, lifts you up, and deposits you in the middle of a forest of lodgepole pines. There is no more romantic album on this list, nor in my entire collection. And I have The Best of Foghat, so that’s saying something.
Gordon Lightfoot’s voice and gentle guitar-picking can make a song about the history of the Canadian railroad sound like the greatest love song ever sung.
If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, let me assure you that No, Donovan McNabb is not on my list of top ten NFL quarterbacks. But if you’re thinking something else, you might be thinking right along with me that Donovan Leitch (for that is his real name) is possibly the most underrated singer-songwriter of the 1960s. He got painted with the hippie-flower-child brush, and admittedly some of his lesser known stuff gets mystical to the point of being twee (a word I never really knew until I heard it used to describe the songs of Belle & Sebastian, a group that sounds uncannily like Donovan), but still, his best ‘60s pop songs hold up today as simple, sincere, truly original, and highly listenable.
Sutras was released in 1996, 13 years after Donovan’s last collection of original material. I hadn’t intended for so much mellow music to be clumped together on this list, but this album falls right into line, with 14 songs that kind of amble along in Donovan’s warm breathy voice.
By the way, Donovan (or Dono, as I like to call him) is the father of actress Ione Skye.
The Best of Fairport Convention
Fairport Convention is one of those bands I’d heard of for years before actually hearing them. It didn’t take long to become a fan. As you might infer from the presence of Amazing Blondel, Jethro Tull, and Donovan on this list, I have an affinity for British folk-rock, especially when it’s blended as seamlessly as it is on this and other Fairport albums. Another reason to love this group is the voice of the lead singer, Sandy Denny. All Music Guide says that her “penetrating, resonant voice qualifies her as the best British folk-rock singer of all time.” I don’t disagree. Her voice makes me want to go back in time and make out with her, but that’s neither here nor there.
This particular CD is part of A&M Records’ “20th Century Masters” series, which seems to be a pretty shameless attempt to separate music fans from their money with yet another repackaging of hits. Nevertheless, if you don’t own any of the other albums, it makes a great introduction to one of the best folk-rock bands of the ‘60s.
The Best of Hot Tuna
One of the great thrills of my life was when I finally heard somebody pronounce Jorma Kaukonen’s name. For years I’d been pronouncing it a variety of ways, all of them wrong, until I heard Garrison Keillor say it correctly on a commercial for Prairie Home Companion. (For those without the accompanying audio track, it’s YOR-ma COW-ko-nen. It’s Finnish.) Jorma was one of the original members of Jefferson Airplane and the guy who came up with the name. He’s also a hell of a guitarist who seems to be equally comfortable with the psychedelic songs of the Airplane, his own folkie originals, and acoustic and electric blues.
Hot Tuna began in 1970 as a collaboration between Kaukonen and Airplane bassist Jack Casady, a side project that let them both indulge their love of the blues. For some reason, Hot Tuna struck a chord with my daughters when they were in grade school, so it wasn’t uncommon to see them dancing around the house to the Spice Girls one minute and Hot Tuna the next.
Songs From the Wood
You can take any three people with the sketchiest musical talent, put ‘em in a room with two guitars and a drum kit, and a couple of hours later they’ll be playing “Louie, Louie.” It’s a safe bet they won’t be playing any Jethro Tull songs. The typical Jethro Tull album features songs with complex arrangements, unusual chord progressions, unexpected tempo changes, and a few surprises on top of all that. It’s pretty clear that Ian Anderson and the boys aren’t banging out these tunes in their garage overnight, and that’s part of the appeal to me—not only for this group and this album, but for art rock in general. There’s nothing wrong with music that makes you realize how much thought went into making it—as long as it’s good, which this is.
I think of this album as belonging to the category of Stonehenge-rock. The jazzy flute solos, the earthy rock beats, the lyrical references to ancient mystical English legends—it all evokes images of Druids dancing around gigantic stone monoliths, frolicking on the village green, and drinking ale out of pewter goblets.
Ah, but what do I know from Druids?
They Might Be Giants
If you had to describe They Might Be Giants in one word, “playful” might be the first thing that comes to mind. “Peerless” would be appropriate, too, because I can’t think of anyone who does what John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been doing for well over two decades now. Name another group that writes catchy melodies about palindromes, James Ensor (“Belgium’s famous painter”), prosthetic foreheads, purple toupees, and being reincarnated as a bag of groceries—and does it all with so much fun and what seems to be, over the course of several albums, every instrument ever invented.
If you’re looking for a place to start getting into TMBG, I’d recommend this album or the album Flood, which contains arguably their biggest hit, “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” I also highly recommend seeing them in concert.
Loudon Wainwright III
Younger people who know Rufus Wainwright might not necessarily know that his father is an accomplished singer-songwriter whose albums are an eclectic mix of absurdist humor and soul-baring confessionals. People closer to my age might not remember that for one year, Loudon Wainwright III was a regular on the TV series M*A*S*H, playing the role of Captain Spalding, who mostly sat around and sang songs that didn’t sound as if they’d been written during the Korean War. (Though that wasn’t nearly as grating as Suzi Quatro singing ‘70s raunch-rock on “Happy Days.”) And people who haven’t delved into LW3’s consistently impressive body of work over the last 30 years might only know him as the artist behind the classic song “Dead Skunk.” That song is probably what prompted me to purchase this album, but what I discovered in the other nine songs makes it one of the best musical investments
I’ve ever made.
This holds the distinction of being the only album I’ve owned on 8-track, LP, and CD.
I became aware of the Roches in 1979 when they were the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” (Bea Arthur was the host that night, if you’re keeping score—and yes, SNL used to book musical acts that didn’t fit in the top-40 crap-of-the-month category). The Roches are three sisters—Maggie Roche, Terre Roche, and Suzzy Roche—who specialized in original acoustic folkie tunes with quirky lyrics and amazing vocal harmonies. One of the songs they did on SNL that night was an a cappella version of the Hallelujah Chorus, and it blew me away. I immediately started looking for their debut album, which, in the days before Amazon.com, meant going down to Morning Glory Music in downtown Crawfordsville, Indiana every week and asking if it was in yet.
This album also brings back some memories of the same girl who’s forever linked with the Gord’s Gold album. Fourth of July, 1981: She and I and my cousin and my cousin’s husband were driving around downtown St Louis in a Renault Le Car, singing these songs at the top of our lungs with the sun roof open. Ah, yes—to be drunk on love.
Blood on the Tracks
Anger. Pain. Loneliness. Confusion. It’s all here on what I consider Dylan’s finest album, which chronicles the whole range of emotions associated with being separated from his wife Sara Lowndes. Of course, Bob makes it easy to listen to, even if it’s not always easy to grasp the meaning of it. “Idiot Wind,” for instance, is one of the most bitter songs ever recorded—but at times the anger seems directed at himself, other times at his future ex-wife, other times at some unnamed interloper. The press, maybe? The amazing thing about a record this personal is that it never becomes uncomfortable. You never feel like you’re prying. You can just listen and be glad that a talented musician used his pain to create some hauntingly beautiful art.
Whenever people tell me they’d like to get into Dylan but don’t know where to start, I point them here first. I think if you love this album, you’ll love the man.
These 15 CDs Didn’t Make The Cut But Aren’t Exactly Chopped Liver Either
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (You also can’t go wrong with Moondance. But Astral Weeks has a weird ethereal quality that’s unforgettable.)
Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and Stephen Stills, Super Session
Gram Parsons, GP
Nick Drake, Bryter Later
Arlo Guthrie, Alice’s Restaurant (I can’t think of another song that has influenced my sense of humor more than “Alice’s Restaurant.”)
Steeleye Span, Spanning the Years (Vocalist Maddy Prior would have to be Sandy Denny’s closest rival for the title of “Best British folk-rock singer of all time.”)
King Crimson, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic
Billy Joel, The Stranger
Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska
Queen, Greatest Hits (There are probably 114 different collections of Queen’s greatest hits. Some of them don’t even have “Bohemian Rhapsody” on them, so caveat emptor.)
The Proclaimers, Sunshine on Leith
Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue
Laura Nyro, Time and Love: The Essential Masters
Todd Snider, Step Right Up
Tom Waits, Rain Dogs (You’ve got to love an album that contains the line “He has a mistress/She’s Puerto Rican/And I’ve heard she has a wooden leg.”)