Monday, August 18, 2008

All Time Favorites, or The Courtship of Michael's Father:

Getting to Know You:

Somewhere to your right is a list of my all time favorite albums, whose contents may seem a bit puzzling. Let me explain.

One of the problems with “all time” lists is that when you decide to check out something from somebody’s list, you often end up buying the record, listening to it once, not getting it, and putting it away.

Now nothing would please me more than to have someone write back and say that they tried one of my all-timers and totally agreed with me, but that’s not likely to happen. As a matter of fact, the more I think about it, the more skeptical I’d be of such a reaction.

Our tastes are just too subjective, and we often attach a private emotion or memory to the music, which gives it a greater significance than what someone else might give it. And in turn, they do the same thing. My wife and I will probably love music from 1981 to an unreasonable degree because that’s when we first met. Talk about music improving life. Sometimes life improves music.

But more importantly, greatness doesn’t always reveal itself right away. It would be nice to think that the “great albums” just jump off the turntable/CD Player at you. This does happen, but more so, I suspect, to people who are easily impressed. We’ve all had enough experience to be suspicious of love at first listen. There may be an immediate infatuation, but that often leads to an early flame out.

After many listens, great albums hang in there, sometimes getting better and better, which in turn might mean that they didn’t seem all that great at first. Your first sip of a wine isn’t always memorable, but if you find yourself going back to the bottle again and again, it could be growing on you (or you could have a drinking problem).

There’s a period of about a week after you’ve bought a CD when you’ve gotten to know it and have formed a working opinion on it. If you loved it from the first listen, you may think you’ve got a masterpiece on your hands. But more often than not, you find that what made such a strong impression on you is now getting on your nerves. So much so that months later you may ask yourself what did I ever see in that album? 

Remind you of anything?

There’s a familiarization process that takes place that, not surprisingly, is a lot like dating. (Notes to self: 1-research probable inverse relationship between number of albums owned and number of times gotten laid, 2-Kill self) Often, there’s something immediately attractive about the record and it’s just a question of finding out if there’s any content behind the form. Other times, it’s instant irritation, and you just have to know what anyone would see in it/him/her, and you decide to find out.

In my case, the first listen might make little or no impression. Or even a negative one, which usually means that I’m in new territory, and that a week just won’t be enough.

I’ve even had cases where I just didn’t care for a record at first, and put it away for a while. Then, months later, when I feel like I’m ready for it, I put it on again and it sounds great. It took until the following St. Patrick’s Day (no joke) for the Pogues’ “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” to take hold. Once it did, it never let go. I had to get out of summertime altogether before Public Image, Ltd’s “Second Edition” could get to me. (Listen to it and you’ll know what I mean.)

Connubial Bliss:

The great ones are like spouses. They’re there for you, they don’t disappoint and they’re in it for long haul. 

And their beauty is only deepened by time.

So I’ve put my current top five below in no particular order, and tried to convey my different impressions of them over time.

Abbey Road [Vinyl] 
Abbey Road – The Beatles
Released and bought in 1969.
What I expected:
Back then we were spoiled. There was quality all around, and I had no reason to expect less.
First Time:
A radio station was playing all of side two, and it was one of those rare experiences of sustained ecstasy. Ladies, is this what multiple orgasms are like?
Endless replays over the next weeks, with its greatness undiminished.
Long Term:
After having put it way for quite a while, my son got into the Beatles, which gave us an excuse to get it on CD. And it still held up quite well. If I wanted to get analytical about it, I suppose I could carp about how I never really loved “Come Together” or “Something”, or that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus’s Garden” are a little lightweight. And yet when I put it on, side one sounds just fine anyway. Side two still grabs me from start to finish, and gets my vote for greatest twenty five minutes of music ever. It’s Paul McCartney’s finest moment, and, sadly, he would never even come close again.

Another Green World 
Another Green World – Brian Eno
Released in 1975, bought in 1979.
What I expected:
Something “spacey”, whatever the hell that means.
First time:
Quiet, a little out of reach, hardly there, really.
Not quite Easy Listening, just beautiful and strange. In fact, it taught me the difference between pretty and beautiful, which up until then I thought was just a matter of degree. Now I know it’s a different thing altogether.
Long Term:
After all these years it’s familiarity does not quite diminish how strange it must have seemed when it first came out. This keeps it from ever seeming dated. When an acquaintance tells you they love “all kinds of music” put this on, if only to shut them up, and then enjoy.

 Tonight's the Night
Tonight’s the Night – Neil Young
Released in 1975, bought in 1979.
What I expected:
I had heard that it was harsh, drunken, and out of tune, but I’ve got relatives like this so I wasn’t fazed. Such things are usually, ahem, an acquired taste,
First listen:
I was actually relieved at how generous and accessible it was. Sometimes “masterpieces” can be on the cheap side, as though we should be thankful for what little we get. This one’s got six songs to a side, and they all get to the point right away. The “imperfections” never seemed gratuitous, and are justified by the intensity of feeling.
Middle Period:
I spent many a late evening during my twenties listening to this record. It’s good for basically unhappy people, and it may be a “male” record. I noticed that I didn’t listen to it as much after I met my wife. Maybe I didn’t need to.
Long Term:
An enduring album, but not for a sunny Saturday afternoon.

 The Who Sell Out
The Who Sell Out:
Released in 1967, bought in 1982.
What I expected:
I found this on someone’s list of essential ‘60s albums, and, thinking it strange that it was included while “Tommy” was not, I figured I’d give it a try. It would probably turn out to be a good but not great album.
First impression:
It all seemed so lightweight! Some of the songs sounded too much like other Who songs, which was irritating (until I realized that these came first). And if you’re in a foul mood, you’re not going to appreciate the commercials in between songs.
But it grows and grows on you, until you realize how great the songs are. And the commercials are hilarious. It pulled me out of many a dark mood.
Long Term:
The CD version has ten additional songs that I first thought took away from the whole thing, but now seem to exist quite nicely with the original songs. And it recently helped me through an all night drive from Florida, with me enjoying every moment. It’s currently my all time favorite for its combination of power, melody and sense of humor.

 Out of Time
Out of Time – R.E.M.
Released and bought in 1991.
What I expected:
By this point, I thought I might have had enough of REM. I’d been a fan since 1984, and that’s a long time for me. So I didn’t rush out to buy it when it came out. But my sister raved about it, so what the hell, right?
First Listen:
Not bad at all, but I was still afraid that it might not wear well and end up being that “one album too many” we all have of our favorite artists.
We spent most of 1991 listening to this. There was a lot going on at the time, which sometimes causes the music to take more significance than it might otherwise have. In this case, it was an island of beauty in a troubled sea.
Long Term:
For the longest time, “Murmur” was my favorite by them, and indeed one of my all-timers. But this one just won’t let go. I’ve read the lukewarm reviews and the complaints about its slickness, but they just don’t wash with me. If anything, it’s the too well known “Losing My Religion” that I savor the least now. It’s quite an achievement when a long, slow one like “Low” can carry you along. And a greater one when all the pretty ones that follow turn out to have a brain.

Old Girlfriends:

If I were to expand the above list to ten or twenty five, I quickly get into a lot of trouble. There are just too many records that fit into that next level that I call “great and Great, but not GREAT”, and they move around like crazy.

Plus, around 1978 my tastes began to go through a major change, so it’s interesting to see how I now view the albums I considered my favorites prior to that time. Back then I had fewer records and more time to listen to them. Kid’s brains can handle a lot of repetition, but that may make something hard to go back to, like an old episode of “Superman” you’ve seen a thousand times..

So here are my old faves:

 For Everyman
Jackson Browne: For Everyman
This has a few of my very favorite songs, but Jackson must be held accountable for pioneering the whole sensitivity angle, which I’m just too old for now. And his first and third albums are really just as good.

 The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East
Allman Brothers at Fillmore East
This is still probably the best live album I can think of, with some of the best guitar playing – some of the solos are ingrained in my head - but I like great songs too much to put it in the pantheon anymore.

Europe '72 (Expanded US Release) 
Grateful Dead: Europe 72
I’m not even sure it’s my favorite Dead album anymore, but it did make me completely change my opinion of them. Its several great songs balance out the instrumental excursions. At this point, it’s just a little too played out. But it left quite a mark.

 The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle
Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle
“Poor production” and all, side two, imho, is the best music Bruce ever made. Wild, urban, ethnic, audacious. Side one suffers in comparison.

Derek and the Dominoes: Layla
Passion and guitars to spare. To this day, the urgency of “Anyday” still gets to me. But it’s another case of something that may simply have been overplayed. Then again, come talk to me in ten years.

I feel a bit disloyal, not liking some of them as much as I used to. But not to worry - to this day I still can’t dispassionately judge the Beatles. Abbey Road, by the way, is the only one that made it to the top of the list and stayed there.

It’s hard to tell which records I’ve played more – the pre 1978 ones when there was a lot of time and not many other records to play, over roughly a 12 year period, or the post 1978s, when there was less time, more competition and different taste, not to mention thirty years.

I do hope that heaven (or the other place) has one of those big computers that will tell me exactly how many times I played each of my albums. I wonder which one I played the most? The answers might be surprising. Meet the Monkees, anyone?

No comments: