So my friend Anne-Sofie dragged me into one of those Facebook challenges – in this case “10 Albums which stayed with me” (actually, the original version has 12). That turned out to be both simple – coming up with ten albums wasn’t that hard – and complicated – once I had a list, I discovered that a lot of music which means a lot to me was still missing. So I came up with ten more. And then five more.
What to do? I have decided to let my original list stay – not because I think any of the remaining fifteen are less worthy but because we shouldn’t take this kind of lists more seriously than necessary. I think any selection from this list would give you hours of aural pleasure.
The original ten
Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells
Pretentious? Okay. Ersatz Philip Glass? Granted. Once you start digging into contemporary music, Mike Oldfield isn’t original: It is fairly easy to interpret Tubular Bells and Oldfield’s other works as rock adaptations of the minimalist school. Still, to me his 1970s works are closely associated with some people I held and still hold very dear. And in Tubular Bells, Oldfield is wicked enough to throw in the odd musical prank here and there to keep things from getting too serious. I rest my case, you honour.
Jethro Tull – Benefit
Anybody remember Jethro Tull? Back in the early and mid-1970s they were the odd cousins of acts like Yes and Genesis. Prog rock with a mad hatter twist, so to speak. Aqualung and Thick as a Brick are still considered their best albums, but even after 35 years I find the weird mix of blues, folk rock, progressive rock and what not on Benefit intriguing. And again, there are some personal relations which keep Tull in the picture. (For an alternative: Songs from the Wood)
Focus – Focus 3
Still more early 1970s stuff. Focus is best known for the bizarre novelty single Hocus Pocus but IMHO the double album (remember those?) Focus 3 was the zenith of the Netherlands’ largest rock act. Here we have just about everything from hard rock (Sylvia) over jazz-rock (Questions? Answers! Answers? Questions!) to faux-renaissance ballads (Elspeth of Nottingham). Later, master guitarist Jan Akkerman lost interest in being a rock star and Thijs van Leer turned his interest to new-age music. But Focus 3 lived in my library from the late 1970s onward, first as a low quality cassette copy (hooray for public music libraries), then as one of the first albums I bought when iTunes was made available in Sweden.
Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding
I discovered Bob Dylan through the triple-album set Biograph. Back in the mid-1980s, his output was too sprawling for me to find a door where to enter. Biograph, obviously, is a bit of a mess which is neither chronologically nor thematically ordered. This is probably a good thing. Also, when I encountered Dylan, I was old enough not to care about the hidden meanings and interpretations which had kept dylanouges busy since 1962, and instead followed the music. If I could choose two Dylan albums, they would be Blood on the Tracks and John Wesley Harding. Now that I have to choose between them, I’ll take John Wesley Harding which is a completely stripped-down affair (singer, guitar, bass, drums) with songs about characters from the New Testament stranded in the Wild West. Or whatever. My advice is: Don’t waste time analysing the lyrics, just let the words create images in your inner cinema.
Pet Shop Boys – Very
My favourite Pet Shop Boys song was and is Being Boring – a wistful electronic ballad about growing up and remembering lost friends. Was I 25 when that one came out? Ouch! The album I keep coming back to, though, is Very which has an almost perfect mix of aggression, remorse, a sense of wonder and playfulness. And silly hats in the videos. I’m sure the young offender of 1994 is annoyed by his/her offspring spending too much time playing games on iPads in 2016.
Milton Nascimento – Clube da Esquina 2
Back ten years to the early 1980s. I never heard Milton Nascimento’s legendary concerts in Montmartre but the stories about the Brazilian singer and guitarist made me seek out his records. Again: Hooray for public music libraries. Clube de Esquina 2 from 1978 (There is a Clube da Esquina from 1972) sees Nascimento in his prime – again it’s a double album and it has everything and the kitchen sink. You will find just about every style of Brazilian music on it, held together by Nascimento’s magic voice. I did get to hear him at later concertos in Copenhagen in the late 1980s.
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Now for the heavier stuff. To non-jazz types, Miles Davis can be described as a sort of David Bowie of jazz. Except Davis was there before Bowie and where Bowie’s golden years lasted from 1972 to 1980, Davis was at the forefront of jazz from the late 1940s until the mid-1970s. When you read about Kind of Blue, stuff like “here Davis introduces modal improvisation” comes up. That is completely beside the point: Davis was a master of musical drama. On Kind of Blue, Davis is the cool guy. Cool guys are enigmatic and never reveal their true feelings. The rest of the band is anything but cool. That is, they were the coolest jazzmen around, but they weren’t cool in the stricter sense: Bill Evans is introspective and introverted, Cannonball Adderley is the extrovert blues player, John Coltrane is all fire and Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb provide the hard-swinging base. Kind of Blue wasn’t the first jazz album I bought (that honour goes to Weather Report’s Mr. Gone) but it contains everything I would look – or listen – for in improvisation music. And even if he wasn’t in his prime by then, I did get to hear Miles Davis in Copenhagen in 1985.
Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony no. 6
If I had to choose between the Beethoven symphonies, I would go for either the 3rd of the 6th. The 9th has always left me cold and the 5th has been played to death. The 3rd is human energy on a massive scale, the 6th pastoral charm. Beethoven’s 6th wasn’t the first classical album I heard, but Herbert von Karajan’s 1984 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic was the first classical album I bought and thus it gets the place in the collection – even if there may be better recordings around. After all, it opened the gates to the world of classical music. (For the 5th, go for Carlos Kleiber).
Gustav Mahler – Symphony no. 9
The Adagietto from the 5th Symphony has been played to death – and is in no way representative of that symphony and Mahler. Again, Mahler is a composer which has been over-analysed as a representative of modern angst with the 9th seen as a vision of his impending death. Yes, it begins with a staggering march and ends with what must be the longest diminuendo in classical music – in something like 30 minutes a full symphony orchestra is reduced to a string quartet – but it also includes a couple of devilish scherzos and grotesques, all with Mahler using the sonoric palette of the modern orchestra in a masterly way. My LP version was with Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The version in my iTunes is with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic
Dmitri Shostakovich – Piano Quintet
When I attended the Online Educa Conference last December, one of the workshop leaders asked the participants to consider a situation where the “analogue” meeting with an artist had made a lasting impression on them. My choice was hearing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the speaker in Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warshaw, but here I want to present another composer: Dmitri Shostakovich. The odd thing is that I have forgotten who the musicians were but I do remember a strange and fascinating concert at the (sadly discontinued) Umeå Chamber Music Festival a lovely June evening after the end of the academic year. The year must have been 2004 (I mean, seriously: I remember the month and the music but not the artists or the year) and the concert began with an experimental piece of electronic music, continued with the Shostakovich Quintet and ended with the audience changing locations for a performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto by the Norrland Symphony Orchestra. Anyway: Shostakovich is less extreme but just as masterly in the smaller formats compared to the fifteen symphonies. I could have picked the 4th or the 13th symphony but the Piano Quintet has a story connected to it. My copy is a budget Naxos recording with the Vermeer Quartet and Boris Berman.
The Next Fifteen
There are a number of strong contenders in the list of albums left out from the top ten. In fact, I might be able to make the case for substituting any one of the above albums with one of the following fifteen. Instead, I’ll let my original ten stand and maybe write a second (or even a third) post about these masterpieces of music.
The Beatles – A Selection of Beatles Oldies
David Bowie – The Buddha of Suburbia
Frédéric Chopin – 14 Waltzes (Krystian Zimerman)
The Clash – London Calling
Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach – Painted from Memory
Brian Eno – Before and after Science
Bill Evans Trio – At The Village Vanguard
Lars Hug – City Slang
Jan Johansson – Jazz på svenska
C.V. Jørgensen – Lediggang agogo
W.A. Mozart – Symphonies nos. 38 (Prague) and 39 (Karl Böhm – Berliner Philharmoniker)
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Steely Dan – Two Against Nature
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no. 5 (Karl Böhm – London Symphony Orchestra)
Weather Report – Tale Spinnin’