Around the turn of the century, I started sifting through my good-sized music collection to compile a personal best-of series. The working title and conceit, “Personally Counting,” helped create one of my most fascinating personal projects, and one that stood incomplete for nearly five years. The goal: whittle down my music collection into a must list of 33 1/3 albums and 78 songs (clever clever), omitting compilations and redundancy wherever possible. To quote my own notes, these are “not important songs, because being great in stature isn’t the same as being wonderful,” although more than a few items on this list are indeed both.
Not that my opinion is more or less valid than anyone else’s; my tastes are fairly easy to pinpoint (minor chords, three-part harmonies, great verse-chorus transitions) and my breadth does not quite achieve the state of relentless fanaticism that defines great music critics. It was a fun personal exercise, though, an expanded Desert Island Discs that would define to my own satisfaction the most indispensable and important items of my 20,000-song-strong music collection.
I actually finished the list, with a nice editorial flair, but never wrote a corresponding article. In 2001 and 2002 I endured a lengthy battle with my ears; when I got engaged, I misplaced the list–handwritten on old Billboard stationery–and never attempted to create it anew.
One night in June 2005, while gleefully sifting through a large folder of magazine clippings of music to explore, I found the list and typed it up. I meant to post it here but never did, although I managed to hang onto the file. A recent Facebook meme of people posting their 10 essential albums from high school brought this to mind, and so I pulled it up again. I think 15-plus years of aging is long enough, so here we go.
I present these lists in their original compilation (which includes much of this introduction). It is in alphabetical order by album/song title and only lightly edited. Some noteworthy additions are tacked onto the back end of the list. The text is from 2005, which has made for a doubly interesting experiment–some of the items I originally presented without supporting statements, as I no longer viewed them the same way, while others grew in stature in varying ways. Any 2017 text additions are in [brackets].
33 1/3 Essential Albums
“Achtung Baby,” U2: Most critics and longtime fans cite “The Joshua Tree” as the best U2 album, but I found “Achtung Baby” a lot more exciting. Here’s a band that has achieved career perfection, and rather than do it again, they nearly explode, integrating synthesizers and aural realms into their anthemic rock. Still a great listen.
“Are You Experienced?” Jimi Hendrix Experience: Little needs to be said in support of Jimi’s coming-out party. Not one of my regular listens but an important piece of my musical knowledge base. (I’m honestly surprised, four years on, that this made the cut back then.) [Middle-aged me is a bit glad that it did.]
“Bedbugs,” Odds: It pains and fascinates me that one of my absolute favorite bands is an act that achieved no traction despite four strong pop-rock albums. “Bedbugs” is the best post-Beatles power pop album I know, more anthemic and interesting than most of its peers, the kind of album that keeps presenting new favorites every year or so as gems are uncovered or rediscovered.
“Breakfast in America,” Supertramp: Fun, playful, a little bit campy, very MOR. Not a shred of credibility for me to include it here, I know. But I’ll be damned if I were to ignore “Take the Long Way Home” and “The Logical Song” in a personal best-of list.
“Center of the Universe,” Giant Sand: Howe Gelb’s best album is more like a great half-album. The first eight songs are good, sort of peculiar, a little grating–then the album screeches to a halt, and Gelb breaks into “Sonic Drive-In,” and from there it’s just wonderful.
“Control,” Janet Jackson: My favorite dance album, and an undeniably strong one. Janet’s coming-of-age story was perfectly captured by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and I still know all the lyrics.
“Destroyer,” Kiss: The first album I ever owned and still a great listen. I now cringe when I look back at some of it–how did my mother let me sing along to “Sweet pain/My love will drive you insane”–but the sound is transporting and defined my youth. It remains the strongest recorded effort by one of the most visually influential bands of the 1970s.
“Don’t Say No,” Billy Squier: Man, I’d love to rediscover this album one of these days. I dug Billy Squier in the early ’80s, thanks to his heavy MTV airplay and the radio-ready follow-up “Everybody Wants You.” Derivative though it may be, this is a great rock album to me.
“Dots and Loops,” Stereolab: Heresy for Stereolab fans, of which I am not one. I am, however, still in love with this CD; its soundscapes are at once invigorating and soothing to me. I still listen to this at bedtime every few weeks.
“Electr-O-Pura,” Yo La Tengo: The best indie album from indie rock’s best band. The range of sounds and emotions is fantastic, and “Moby Octopad” is transporting.
“Entroducing…” DJ Shadow: I can say without much hesitation that within this list of 33, and despite my preference of perfect power pop, “Entroducing” is a singular recording and a notch above the rest. The range of styles and moods folded into it envelops me and holds my attention from start to finish. I hate starting this album without finishing it. What rock album makes someone say that?
“Exile in Guyville,” Liz Phair: Cock rock from a cocky woman–what’s not to like? “Exile” forces you to sit up straight. I loved that quality.
“41,” Swell: I’d never heard the cinema expression mise-en-scene applied to an album until I found this one, and its immersive quality still excites me. The down-on-my-luck acoustics are unlike any other album I know. Swell’s other CDs are good, too, but none are as unique.
“Freedom,” Neil Young: way gone from my listening circuit nowadays, but a simply terrific rock album, the reinvigoration of a career and a powerful statement by one of rock’s singular artists.
“Girlfriend,” Matthew Sweet: Between the purity of its execution and the sensitivity of its lyrics (something I normally neglect) Sweet achieved rock perfection on his third album. It’s so good that I can’t listen to it unless I’m in the right state of mind–I listen to the more playful “Altered Beast,” his follow-up, far more often. But this album is the best.
“Gun Shy Trigger Happy,” Jen Trynin: I don’t get it either–maybe there’s a Billy Squier derivation within it. Something about this album grabs me, and I can listen to it straight through, singing along with every song. Fantastic unheralded rock. [By the way, I still adore this largely unknown album, and I always wish Jen hadn’t left the music business.]
“Kick,” INXS: Not much to say here, except that 15 years on, every song on this album is still pretty fun.
“Led Zeppelin IV”: I was 14 when I found this LP in someone’s spring cleaning discard bin and played it on a half-busted record player. In one day I shifted from pop fan to rock fan. Played-out or not, these are some of the best rock songs ever recorded.
“A Love Supreme” and “Blue Train,” John Coltrane: Listing both of these probably breaks my own rules, but truly, how to fairly select one or the other?
“Mama Said,” Lenny Kravitz: There was a time when I drove a car with a Sony Discman nestled between the front seats, an adapter snaking into the car’s cassette deck, and for months this album and “Time’s Up” (see below) went wherever I went.
“No Protection,” Massive Attack v. Mad Professor: I bought this album on recommendation of a review that said, “This is the perfect album to have sex to.” I never drank or did drugs; music was always my elixir, and albums that evoke emotions and bring me somewhere else are the ones that grab me. With a review like that, how could I ignore it? And indeed, this disc retains its transporting quality. Good for late late nights, dim lighting and, y’know.
“…Nothing Like the Sun,” Sting: A very good album made great for me with “Fragile.”
“Odelay,” Beck: Creating genre mash-ups ahead of everyone else. Consistently great.
“Rumours,” Fleetwood Mac: Go ahead, make fun. I’ll stand by this outpouring of emotion and musical power, and pop it in whenever I want to get mad and sad and passionate about things.
“Rubber Soul,” The Beatles: The pivot point between pop-ditty Beatles and maharishi-acid Beatles, where sophistication had entered their songs without overtaking them. “Revolver” is almost as good.
“Sap,” Alice in Chains: The 1/3 mentioned above, four great songs on an acoustic EP from a sludgy grunge band, full of desperate harmonies and minor chords. Just my thing.
“Some Friendly,” Charlatans UK: My first exposure to Britpop and still my favorite.
“Supergrass,” Supergrass: perfect later-period Britpop for the turn of the century. “Moving” is a one-of-a-kind song, and the rest of the album is playful, strong, and unforgiving.
“Symphony or Damn,” Terence Trent D’Arby: Just because, although I’m long over it now.
“Three Feet High and Rising,” De La Soul: For all the reasons this is a seminal rap album, it’s my favorite of the genre.
“Throwing Copper,” Live: Not a sophisticated selection, but man, is this a great rock album. Anthemic, crisp, exciting, emotional: everything clicked on this second album. I followed Live for years and was amazed at how limpid their music became. But from start to finish this album rocks.
“Time’s Up,” Living Colour: The best album by one of the most underappreciated bands of the past 20 years. Living Colour were breaking down walls before it was cool to do so, and “Time’s Up,” with its live studio recordings, was their strongest effort. It’s a bit dated today but no less important.
“Wish You Were Here,” Pink Floyd: Now here’s an album I never listen to–I only have it on cassette–yet it is forever lodged in my brain. It brings me a wide range of memories, and notably, I like this album mostly because I had friends who liked it, rather than having discovered and fallen in love with it on my own. Years later, though, I am transported to my past with it; and frankly, a Pink Floyd album is not a bad way for that to happen. Not to mention that the production and soundscapes are terrific.
Revisions, 2005: Four years on [heh], most of the album list retains its power, despite my having moved away from regular listens to many of these albums. I still play “Bedbugs” and “Entroducing” as much as anything in my collection; they’d have to top a ranked version of this list. Removed without hesitation: “Symphony or Damn” and “Odelay.” Added: “Weezer” (the Green album) and, if I can cheat, Stevie Wonder’s “Song Review” compendium. [Meanwhile, 2017 me is trying to parse how I didn’t fit a King’s X album in here, and thinking I was crazy to cut “Odelay” out.]
“A Day in the Life,” Beatles: Because I still consider this their crowning musical achievement.
“Abacab,” Genesis: Enveloping.
“And Fools Shine On,” Brother Cane: One of those songs that I just love to sing along with.
“Angeles,” Elliott Smith: My favorite of his mood-mope runes.
“Are You Gonna Go My Way,” Lenny Kravitz: The first time I heard this song, I nearly fell out of my chair. Then I saw the video and it almost happened a second time. Proved that Lenny is a rock star.
“Army of Me,” Bjork: This tune has become popular for remakes, but the original is hot.
“Battleflag,” Lo-Fidelity All-Stars: No comment, although it’s still catchy.
“Big Fat Funky Booty,” Spin Doctors: Still funny and still fun, if you divorce it from all the crap that surrounded the Spin Doctors once they got big.
“Black Velvet,” Alannah Myles: I used to walk around high school singing this song, I liked it so much at the time.
“Brown Paper Bag,” Roni Size + Reprazent: Just listened to this again after a few years away. Drum ‘n bass like this really had potential. Best in genre, and a really compelling, exciting song.
“California Dreaming,” The Mamas and the Papas: Harmonies don’t get better than this.
“Criminal,” Fiona Apple: This makes the list feel like it was from a long time ago, but on reflection, this is still one heck of a song.
“Cult of Personality,” Living Colour: the band’s defining moment, and one of the most powerful rock songs I know. This was the first album I bought on CD, too.
“Dazed and Confused,” Led Zeppelin: * The deepest and scariest rock I knew.
“Detroit Rock City,” Kiss: * Still their coolest accomplishment.
“Double Vision,” Foreigner: From the days when rock to me meant 66 WNBC AM. [In 2017, the AM radio guy in me proudly listens to Yacht Rock Radio on Sirius XM.]
“Dust in the Wind,” Kansas: no comment.
“Emotional Rescue,” Rolling Stones: At the age of 7, I didn’t know Mick Jagger from his young swaggering days, but I knew the guy half-seducing, half-threatening his girl was a man to pay attention to.
“Everybodys 1,” godschild: Godschild somehow put out more than one album. I say “somehow” because the lead singer’s voice is cringe-inducing. Still, this song is very cool, and it followed me around for a long time.
“Fanfare,” Eric Matthews: It’s a shame he doesn’t put out more of his own music, because his perfectionism really plays well. The horns!
“Feelin’ Alright,” Joe Cocker: That voice.
“Fell on Black Days,” Soundgarden: Those minor chords.
“Fly Like an Eagle,” Steve Miller Band: More minor chords! Also, the effects on this song were so cool back in the day.
“Fragile,” Sting: * Sting’s prettiest song, so relaxing and distant and just a little bit frightening. A wonderful combination.
“Funk #49,” James Gang: Guitars, baby, guitars. I will forever respect Joe Walsh as a result.
“Gimme Shelter,” Rolling Stones: For the howling woman and the tonal quality of the recording, which completely pulls the listener into another place.
“Hotel California,” Eagles: I spent countless hours with this song, first learning the lyrics, then deciphering what they meant, then learning this song on piano (where it really doesn’t belong), then singing it to myself as I played. I did this with a few other songs, too, but most of them are even more embarrassing to mention.
“I Feel Love,” Donna Summer: World’s greatest disco song. Giorgio Moroder’s thumping, swirling bass is ethereal.
“Indifference,” Pearl Jam: Back when Pearl Jam mattered, this song, full of Eddie Vedder’s pain and boozy intonation, was truly special.
“Invisible Sun,” The Police: More minor chords for my enjoyment.
“Jam on It,” Newcleus: I used to sit on the floor of my bedroom re-recording this onto cassette tape during Jack the Wack’s Top 5 at 9 show to see how much of the “da-dahhh, da-dahhh” I could get before Jack talked over it. Years later I discovered the 12″ version of the song, with twice the lyrics, and fell in love with it all over again.
“King of the World,” Steely Dan: Steely Dan occurred in two phases for me: the poppy songs of my youth, and all the other amazing jazz-rock I found when I got the boxed set in my 20s. “King of the World” is my favorite discovery of the second round.
“Lady Madonna,” Beatles: For a time, my second-favorite Beatles song.
“License to Confuse,” Sebadoh: When I got the “Bakesale” CD, I put it in my car’s changer, and it didn’t have any words on the disc, so for months I didn’t know who it was–but I knew I couldn’t get enough of the dynamite first track.
“Light Rain Blues,” Taj Mahal: I could [should] write a lengthy essay about Taj. “Light Rain Blues” is the one we sung along to [when we discovered him in summer camp], the tape of which I still have. Taj is terrific–this is but one representation of his body of work.
“Like the Way I Do,” Melissa Etheridge: Before she became famous for being a lesbian crossover star, and before Alanis Morisette lay claim to angry chick rock, “Like the Way I Do” burst out of rock radio with a woman slinging a 12-string guitar like nobody’s business.
“Mary Sunshine Rain,” dada: Once upon a time there was a CD store called Phase One Music in Chatham that was one of the first outlets with listening stations. You’d take any disc in the store, bring it to the register, and they’d hand you the CD and headphones and you’d set up shop at a CD player with no time or quantity limit. I’d heard “Dizz Knee Land” on the radio and was wondering what the band dada was all about. The guitar and harmonies in track two got me. I still love them.
“Moby Octopad,” Yo La Tengo: * Just amazing.
“More than a Feeling,” Boston: no comment.
“Moving,” Supergrass: * Almost as riveting as “Moby Octopad,” if considered heavily, but Supergrass probably didn’t, so it’s better to kick back and rock along with it instead.
“Nothingness,” Living Colour: A moment of tenderness, albeit bitter, from an angry band.
“On the Loose,” Saga: I still find the keyboard and rhythm section in this song to be driving and exciting. The video was great in the early MTV days as well.
“Only the Lonely,” the Motels: props to myself for remembering to include this one.
“Open Sesame,” Kool and the Gang: Early Kool and the Gang is uniformly good. Long before I knew that, though, I knew this song, which was a favorite on the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. Leave it to me to dig the heavy R&B song while everyone else was singing along with the Bee Gees.
“Paperback Writer,” Beatles: For a time, my favorite Beatles song.
“Parasite,” Kiss: my favorite Kiss song, no small statement considering I have two dozen Kiss albums.
“Plush,” Stone Temple Pilots: Perfectly wistful, and those minor chords again.
“Policy of Truth,” Depeche Mode: Ethereal and moody, and–say it with me–minor chords.
“Pop Life,” Prince: Once upon a time, my favorite Prince song.
“Pure,” Golden Palominos: * A gentler “Policy of Truth,” right down to the chords.
“Rabbit One,” Masters of Reality: for one brief, shining moment, Masters of Reality were the world’s greatest rock band, having convinced Ginger Baker to play on their sophomore CD. The drumming makes the album. This track is its standout.
“Rhinoceros,” Smashing Pumpkins: I never got heavily into the Pumpkins, but when their popularity was at its peak, I rediscovered their debut album and this sprawling rock anthem.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Pink Floyd: Take it for what it is.
“Sign O’ the Times,” Prince: The sparseness made me pay attention to the lyrics at an impressionable time in my life (read: age 14).
“Solomon’s Ride,” Giant Sand: One of Howe Gelb’s best songs, and the track that introduced me to Giant Sand. No one else crunches into their chords like this.
“Sour Girl,” Stone Temple Pilots: Power pop nugget.
“Southern Man,” Crosby Stills & Nash: no comment.
“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin: for all the blatantly obvious reasons. Historically speaking, I should really have the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” on this list, too.
“Still of the Night,” Whitesnake: For its youth, for the perceived freshness and excitement of the album, for the way my camp friend Nate’s eyes went wide as he said “He’s bowing his guitar!” and we believed it. Not until much later did I learn David Coverdale’s back story.
“Stone Cold,” Rainbow: Damn, this song was cool. And, yup, full of minor chords.
“Stone in Love,” Journey: Minor minor minor chords. This is still my favorite Journey song.
“Summerland,” King’s X: The coolest song executed by a very cool band. Other King’s X songs are just as strong, but this one is a nice keystone for their work.
“Superstition,” Stevie Wonder: Nowadays I may have opted for “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” but truly, nothing beats this rock/soul breakdown from the master.
“Sweetness and Love,” Odds: * I love many an Odds tune, but “Sweetness and Love” continually stands out.
“Synchronicity,” The Police: * The driving polyrhythms and challenging lyrics kept me riveted.
“Take the Long Way Home,” Supertramp: Makes me want to.
“The Chain,” Fleetwood Mac: * Frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t choose “Tusk.”
“The Down Town,” Days of the New: An unremarkable song, but something in it always gets me going.
“The Stroke,” Billy Squier: * The hallmark song off “Don’t Say No” and the one that got the most attention from MTV (excluding “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You”).
“The Way It Is,” Bruce Hornsby and the Range: Ah, Bruce Hornsby is a quiet favorite of mine; I don’t listen to him nearly enough. He peaked early with “The Way It Is,” but what a way to start.
“Time Capsule,” Matthew Sweet: I know there are minor chords in here, and the sound is perfectly suited to my tastes, but in actuality the bittersweet lyrics and subtle twist in the last chorus make this song a keeper for me.
“Vital Signs,” Rush: For no good reason, still my favorite Rush song.
“When the Levee Breaks,” Led Zeppelin: * I always dug “Levee” and thought it strange that I did. [Middle-aged me understands.]
“Where the Streets Have No Name,” U2: no comment.
“Where’s Summer B.?” Ben Folds Five: For a while there, I really liked Ben Folds, and this is still a great selection.
“White,” Discussion,” Live: Easily the best song Live ever recorded. Hearing this at the end of “Throwing Copper” blew me away.
“Wish You Were Here,” Pink Floyd: For the sentiments.
“You’re Not Very Well,” Charlatans UK: First track, first album, just right.
Revisions, 2005: I still feel good about most of these 78 songs, although I have new ones since 2001 that I’d like to include: “Island in the Sun” (Weezer), “Words” (Doves), “If This Ain’t Love” (Spiller), something by Komeda. It’s easier to find, and stay committed to, four minutes of perfection than 40. I also didn’t know how to count in 2001: there were accidentally 79 songs on this list instead of 78 (I mercifully deleted “Zooropa”).
Takeaways, 2005: As I went through this list in rediscovery, I loved the nuggets I discovered. For example, I have two Living Colour songs on in the 78 and one album in the 33, but the songs aren’t on the CD. I also have two Rolling Stones songs in the 78, and despite their many great albums, I never listened to them on an album basis. I find this to be a reminder of how much I like the album format, and I hope it doesn’t fade too far in this download- and shuffle-ready world. [Ah, well.]