ArtsWeek: Dr. Sammy’s desert island list
You’ve probably heard the old challenge:
You’re stranded on a desert island and you can only have X albums to listen to for the rest of your life. What would you choose?
I’ve probably heard this one a hundred times and have thought about it informally for maybe 30 years. But I’ve never actually sat down and tried to tackle it head on. Until today. And let me tell you, damn, this question is an absolute bitch. My friends know just what a wide range of music I listen to, and the idea that I’d never again get to explore new releases and emerging bands and interesting evolutions in style and genre is painful to think about.
But hey, it’s just an intellectual and aesthetic exercise, right? So here goes: if I’m going to be stranded on a desert island, here are the 25 CDs I want to have with me. (A note: some of you are saying “hey, it’s 10 albums, not 25!” Shut up. I tried getting the list down to 10 and nearly gave myself an aneurysm. Besides, if this hypothetical desert island has electricity or enough batteries to keep my iPod spinning, it has enough room for 15 more CDs.)
1: Jeffrey Dean Foster – Million Star Hotel
I’ve been saying for years that JDF’s 2005 masterpiece is one of the greatest albums I have ever heard and I mean it. It’s intelligent, soulful, beautifully crafted, and the songwriting is timeless. I cannot honestly tell you how many times I have listened to MSH in the last several years, but it’s easily in the hundreds. I simply never tire of it, and when we’re talking about 25 albums to last you the rest of your life, this is an extremely important criterion.
2: Space Team Electra – The Vortex Flower
STE is probably the best band I ever heard that never “made it.” That this CD didn’t go octuple platinum and get played to death on radio is as pointed an indictment as I have against the American music industry. Lyrically and sonically The Vortex Flower is as rich and complex as any CD I own. There is a depth here that never stops rewarding repeated listens. (If you let me take 50 records STE’s Intergalactic Torch Song is probably coming along, too.
3: Peter Gabriel – 3
I can only use words like “rich,” “layered,” and “complex” so many times in a piece like this without sounding like I only know three words, but if you have 25 albums to last you the rest of your life, they need to be, they must be, albums that have a “thickness” about them. They need a depth that, as I say about STE above, keeps you coming back. If you ears and your mind gets it all in one take, you’re going to get bored in a hurry. This is why I have always loved PG’s third solo release. “Games Without Frontiers” is as bottomless a song as I have ever heard and the rest of the disc isn’t far behind.
4: The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta
One of my three favorite bands of all time – the only question here is which CD to bring? Love the first one. Love Synchroncity. Love Regatta de Blanc and almost picked it. But there’s a vibe, a darkness and texture about ZM that I think carries the day. One of my favorite moments from all the live shows I ever saw was The Police doing “Shadows in the Rain,” and I’d like to have a reminder of that on the island.
5: Fiction 8 – Forever, Neverafter
I was really torn here. I like pretty much everything my buddy Michael Smith has done (and am anxiously waiting to hear the new one, which I hope will be out this year). I especially like Chaotica. I wound up going with Forever, Neverafter for what may seem an odd reason. I’ve been lucky enough to co-write tracks on it and Project Phoenix, the two most recent releases. And if I choose a disc that I’m represented on, then I’m periodically reminded in a tangible fashion of the friendship and the joy of collaboration. I picked this one instead of Project Phoenix because I have two songs on it instead of the one (“Hegemony”) on PP. Two reminders instead of one.
6: Queen – A Night at the Opera
The idea of being trapped anywhere for the rest of my life without something by my first great favorite band is unthinkable. I could have gone with pretty much any of their first eight studio discs and been fine, but ANatO was the one that caused me to fall in love with the band, so let’s go with it.
7: U2 – The Unforgettable Fire
My favorite band of all time. I’d be happy with anything up through Achtung, Baby, honestly, but this is the one I have always regarded as their finest moment. Being able to hit play and hear “A Sort of Homecoming” or “Pride” or “Bad” would make being stranded a little more tolerable.
8: The Birthday Massacre – Violet
If I’m trapped on an island alone, I’m occasionally going to need to bang my head a little. TBM has been one of my favorite bands in recent years, and Violet is perhaps where they’re at their best in stacking the power on top of the pretty on top of the atmosphere.
9: Don Dixon – Romeo at Julliard or Most of the Girls Like to Dance…
Okay, I’m hedging here. I’m definitely taking something from Dixon, who in addition to being one of my favorite artists ever is also a good friend, and I’d like to be reminded of what a great guy he is when I’m sitting around on the island. For right now, I’m going with Romeo, which has my first favorite
DD song, “Your Sister Told Me.” But I reserve the right to change my mind as I’m dashing out the door to catch my doomed flight (or boat? – not really sure how I landed on this damned island, to be honest).
10: Van Morrison – Hymns to the Silence
This isn’t Van’s best CD, although it is perhaps his most underrated. And it has always been my favorite. There is history here, lots of history, and yes, there’s a woman involved. Perhaps the woman I should have been with all along. I know myself well enough to know that if I’m faced with an eternity alone I’m going to think a lot about my life, and I’m going to spend a lot of time playing “what if?” games with myself. What else are you going to do on a freakin’ desert island? Given this certainty, I’d like to have the soundtrack for one of the most important moments of my life handy. (Disc 2, Track 6 – my heart breaks every time….)
11: Sam Cooke – The Man and His Music
Really, any good greatest hits collection works here. Not only is Sam simply remarkable period, but when I hear his music I hear echoes of the world my parents grew up in, I think. It’s like there’s a connection in the songs to the young father and mother that honestly, I never really knew.
12: Roxy Music – Avalon
The greatest seduction record ever made. It would be nice to remember times when I was with a woman.
13: The Samples – The Last Drag
When I moved to Colorado in 1993 to get my PhD, there were three big bands in Boulder: The Reejers, Big Head Todd & the Monsters, and The Samples. I loved them all, but resonated most strongly with The Samples. They were archetypally Boulder in so many ways, and the 1990s cultural gestalt of the place for a grad student making his way through the greatest challenge of his life is just about impossible to explain. The bottom line is that my mind was the sharpest it has ever been, and even though there were plenty of down moments – the kind that seem to attend our lives when we’re blasting through the curves in the dark with the throttle wide open – I was as alive as I have ever been. I was working toward something. There was a future. When I hear The Last Drag I’m back there, and it’s wonderful being reminded of how vibrant and full of possibility life can be. (One caveat, though. Can I replace “Playground”? For some reason, they decided to let their junkie keyboardist write a song, and it’s kind of their version of the time The Police let Andy Summers put “Mother” on Synchronicity. Either I need to burn a copy of the disc without this track or, if it’s okay, can I substitute the wonderful cover of “Amazing Grace” from Sean Kelly’s solo disc?)
14: The Lost Patrol – Dark Matter or Lonesome Sky
Another one of those can’t make up my damned mind moments. The whole TLP sound is so lush and textured, so haunting and beautiful, that I know I’m taking something. Lonesome Sky is my favorite moment from the Danielle Stauss years and as much as I seem to love everything the band does, I think 2010’s Dark Matter is my favorite from the contemporary Mollie Israel era. I’m going to put them both on the table by the door and let my gut instinct pick one at the last second as I rush out to meet my doom.
15: The Blueflowers – In Line with the Broken Hearted
The Blueflowers have a sound that’s similar to The Lost Patrol – layered, twangy, moody, dark. It’s a sound you can come back to time and time again, and I know from experience that I can listen to it a dozen times in a row without it getting old.
16: Rick Springfield – Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet or Venus in Overdrive
More waffling, I know. When packing for the rest of your life, you have to think about the importance of a range of styles and sounds, and we all know that I’m a bad Power Pop junkie. Success is my favorite of the early Springfield records – lots of great, hooky, toe-tapping butt-dancing white-boy overbite music that I think might be good for my sanity if I’m trapped on a desert island. Venus is an equally catchy and engaging moment from Rick’s recent career. A little more miles on the tread, a little more world-wise and weary. Right now I’m leaning toward Success because I had fun in the ’80s and I’d like to maybe relive that a little, but I might change my mind at the last minute.
17: Catherine Wheel – Chrome
I can’t imagine this hypothetical island without something from the Shoegazer era – the gods know I love me some wall of dissonance noise pop and CW is one of my favorite bands ever. I thought about maybe Ferment (come on, “Black Metallic,” right?) and maybe even Adam & Eve, but in the end I feel like Chrome is the most solidly packed and consistently excellent from end to end.
18: Jets Overhead – Bridges
I keep arguing that JO may be one of the three or four best bands of this generation, and as much as I like their more recent output, nothing they’ve done has ever quite insinuated itself as deeply into my skin as Bridges, which is sort of a richly textured update on mid-’60s California psychedelia sifted through foggy modern-day PNW indie.
19: Adam Schmitt – World So Bright
More Power Pop, and this is a guy that most readers have almost certainly never heard of. Back in the ’90s he jacked out two of the best guitar pop CDs I’ve ever heard – this one (1991) and Illiterature (1993). Remarkable songcraft, a depth of sound that bears up under repeated listens, and a self-possessed intelligence that often came at you from unexpected directions. I could listen to this disc daily for the rest of my life.
20: Marillion – Misplaced Childhood
Not only was Marillion writing achingly beautiful tunes back in the 1980s, but Fish was penning lyrics that actually stood on their own as poetry. I don’t say that about many lyricists. The truth is I could take Clutching at Straws or any of several solo Fish records and be just fine.
21: Johnny Clegg – Shadow Man
You know how they say “dance like nobody’s looking”? Well, this is as great as dance like nobody’s looking albums get. I discovered it in a record store in Ames, Iowa back in the late ’80s. We were looking for new music for the club where I was a DJ, and as I riffled through the bins I realized I was sort of dancing in place. I stopped, listened, then walked to the front of the store to find out who they were playing. “Johnny Clegg & Savuka,” the guy said. “I’ll take two copies,” I replied. One for the club, one for me.
22: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Born to Run
I could also make a case for The River, but if I’m stranded on a desert island, I’m probably going to occasionally have need of sheer grandeur.
23: Led Zeppelin – 4
There’s no real sentimental reason for this one. It’s just one of the greatest hard rock albums in history and my favorite Zep moment.
24: The Killers – Battle Born
I like The Killers for a lot of reasons, and if I’m off to a deserted island for the rest of my life, I’d like to take along my favorite CD from the last year that I got to hear new music.
25: Raison d’Etre – Enthralled by the Wind of Loneliness
I go to sleep with music playing. There have been a lot of artists that have serenaded me to sleep through the years – Andreas Vollenweider, Mike Oldfield, Lycia, The Lost Patrol, Love Spirals Downward, Delerium, Van Morrison, Enya and Enigma are a few that come to mind. My preferred genre these days is Dark Ambient, and this disc, which sounds like it was recorded by melancholy angels in a haunted medieval cathedral ruin, is the most wonderful of them all. I list this one last, because it’s the one that I’ll be playing at the end of the day. But it is perhaps the most important – if I could only take one album to my desert island, this would be the one.
A final note: You may notice that I have included a number of artists who I know personally – Jeff Foster, Don Dixon, Space Team, The Blueflowers, The Lost Patrol, Fiction 8 (plus I had dinner with Fish once) – and this is worth commenting on. I’m fortunate to know a lot of talented people, and I care a lot about these relationships. I care about all my relationships, and I don’t toss the word “friend” around casually. The conceit here is that I’m trapped on a desert island. I’m alone and one presumes it’s going to stay that way. If I can not only listen to music that I love, but in doing so be reminded of someone I know and respect, that counts for a lot.