Top 10 Desert Isle Albums

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Why ruin a good thing?  Last time I listed the ten songs I would want on a deserted isle.  Now it’s time for the top ten albums.

I came of age in the rock era, so my list is skewered toward rock music. But I also snuck in some jazz, blues, country, and even Easy Listening.  After all, one needs a well-rounded diet to supplement the coconuts and sand crab.

Drum roll, please…let me know your thoughts, yea or nay, and some of your own choices!

Mom saw this in 1966 and wanted to know why I couldn’t dress like the Beatles
  1. The Beatles, Beatles VI.  Several of my favorite Beatles songs are on this collection of singles, B-sides, and album cuts on the North American Capitol label: “Yes it Is,” “Eight Days a Week,” “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” and my fave Beatles cover song, Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love.”  It also has sentimental charm, being the second rock album I ever bought, and every time I listen to it I’m transported back to my salad days.
  2. The Beatles, Rubber Soul (Capitol).  The first rock album I ever bought.  Like above, it’s a North America-only release with shuffled songs, but it’s another personal time machine.  I could be pressured into substituting the official EMI Rubber Soul that contains “Nowhere Man,” but I give this Capitol version a slight edge due to the inclusion of “It’s Only Love” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
  3. Velvet Underground, Velvet Underground and Nico.  I don’t doubt that if Lou Reed had died in 1970, he’d be ranked with John Lennon and Bob Dylan.  The best word to describe this record is “uncompromising.”  This is serious rock music for adults, filled with beauty, danger, and poetry.  The “banana album” directly influenced dozens of later, more successful artists, yet it was so daring and intense in 1967 that it was totally ignored.
  4. The Doors, The Doors.  Like the record above, a thrilling debut album that threatened the peace and love vibes of the time, and where every song is a knockout.  The Doors made a lot of great music after this, but never attained the same heights.
  5. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited.  After the 1960s he continued to make good music (especially Blood on the Tracks) but his creative peak were three albums in the mid-sixties: Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.  This is my favorite of the three (not surprisingly the first Dylan I ever bought, back in college).  Try as you might, there’s no way to categorize this ragged hybrid of rock, blues, folk, and free-form verse that churns like a rickety steam engine and will be talked about as long as recorded music exists.
  6. Beach Boys, Pet Sounds.  Actually a Brian Wilson solo album with the group name slapped on it, he was trying to top the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and when Beatle Paul heard it he hatched the idea for Sgt. Pepper.  Four of Wilson’s greatest songs are here: “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” “God Only Knows,” and “Caroline No,” plus two beautiful instrumentals.  The only wrong move was inclusion of “Sloop John B,” which is starkly out of place, but acceptable on a desert isle.
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Brian Wilson and a friend
  1. Burt Bacharach, The Look of Love.  A three-CD boxed set.  Until buying this in 2008, I mainly associated Bacharach with his popular Dionne Warwick songs and film work (and the dentist’s office).  His Warwick songs are legendary, but just a few keys on his grand piano.  There’s a thing called “The Bacharach Sound,” and you can hear it on everything from “The Blob” (theme song to the 1958 cult monster movie starring a young Steve McQueen) on up to his 1998 collaboration with Elvis Costello.  The best description of this Sound came from his late daughter, Nikki, who said experiencing it is like “going to heaven on a velvet slide.”
  2. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue.  Lots of jazz experts call this the greatest jazz album ever.  I’m more into rock, but I have a modest jazz collection, and I’m not going to disagree.  Kind of Blue was a studio improv experiment for Miles that explored modality, setting the stage for John Coltrane’s later work.  Like Joni Mitchell’s records, it’s best appreciated alone, late at night, in a dark room, with no distractions.
  3. Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings.  I also have a modest blues collection, and there are few musical experiences as wrenching as a listening session with the king of Delta Blues.  He was an anomaly, dragged to only two recording sessions during the Great Depression when very few black musicians were active, then dying mysteriously.  Not only was Johnson a guitar virtuoso who sang like he was wrestling with all sorts of crazy demons, but as a blues lyricist he’s unparalleled.  He’s as close to an existential experience as you can get in blues.
  4. Paul Groueff, Vest Pocket Soul.  I’m cheating here.  This guy actually hasn’t released a record (yet).  A few years ago I accidentally discovered his online Myspace page.  He’d uploaded 11 demos there, and after listening I was so impressed I wrote to him, then managed to find an app to extract and download his tunes to my computer, then ripped them to CD.  Groueff is hard to describe: a cross between Tim Buckley and Gordon Lightfoot might come close.  He’s not only an extremely talented guitarist, he’s also a fine writer/arranger, and his voice often ascends to a plaintive falsetto, creating what I call a “high, lonesome, Montana” sound. I think his Myspace page is now defunct.  And since he lives in an isolated cabin with no address on a mountain outside Bozeman, the only way to get his music is through Longitudes Records.

Honorable Mentions:  Hank Williams, 40 Greatest Hits; Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon; Small Faces, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake; Kevin Ayers, Joy of a Toy; Neil Young, After the Goldrush; Zombies, Odessey and Oracle; Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland; Love, Love; Townes Van Zandt, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas; Steely Dan, Katy Lied; Pentangle, Sweet Child; Bill Evans, The Village Vanguard Sessions; Lindisfarne, Nicely Out of Tune; Genesis, Foxtrot; and any of several Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, and additional Beatles, Dylan, and Velvets albums.  

Off to the dentist’s office on a velvet slide…

Down at Texas Rose Café with CB and Townes Van Zandt

Michael Ochs Archives_Getty Images

Regular readers of longitudes know that I feature periodic musical interludes. I’m particularly enamored of 1960s rock music. I’ve hosted more than a few 50th anniversary specials in the last seven years.

For this interlude, I’m doing something a little different. I’m soliciting the help of a blogging friend, Cincinnati Babyhead (CB), to discuss an artist who is more associated with the Seventies: Townes Van Zandt. CB has been listening to Townes longer than me.

Like a lot of musicians I profile, Townes was all but ignored on commercial radio, and he never sold many records. But he’s cherished by a small cadre of fans for his purity and musical integrity. He died on New Year’s Day, 1997 at age 52.

CB and I hopped a coupla freights, he from Vancouver and me from Ohio. We converged in Archer City, Texas at the Texas Rose Café, located just under the water tower near the railroad tracks. Archer City ain’t much of a town. It’s on flat, dusty prairie in the middle of drilling rig country. It has a permanent Sunday morning hangover. It’s the kind of place where raggedy divorcees with dark pits under their eyes conduct discreet affairs with high-school football players.

I checked in at the Motel 7 at the edge of town. Juanita, the housekeeper on the day of my arrival, thought it would be real funny to short-sheet the bed in room 202, and her prank gave me fitful dreams all night. But I felt better next day after meeting CB at the TRC for Happy Hour. Appropriately, the TRC jukebox was chock full of Townes songs, mixed with lotsa Hank Senior. We ordered a round of Lone Star beers from Lowell, our portly bartender. Lowell wasn’t too busy, so he occasionally leaned in on our conversation while offering nods of approval.

Without further ado, here’s our beer summit (with thanks to Vinyl Daft Dad for the barfly idea):

lone star

longitudes: CB, we’re both on record as enjoying the music of Townes Van Zandt. When did you start listening to him, and why is he special?

CB: Man, that’s a hard one. I guess like a Texas wind he just blew into my life way back when. It seems that he’s been with me forever. Special? Just listen to him. If it hits you like it did me, you’re done. He stirs emotions, images, thoughts, memories, inspiration. He just has a no-bullshit feel about him. Probably for some of the same reasons you like his music.

longitudes: I think so. With Townes, you get no smoke and mirrors, it’s all about the song. He’s one of those legendary cultish writer-musicians like Gram Parsons or Fred Neil that other musicians often namedrop. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, even Zimmy have covered his songs.

CB: I remember when Merle and Willie cut “Pancho and Lefty.” I thought that was so cool. Plus it put some cash in Townes’s pocket. Emmylou has always had an ear for a good song and a special talent. She seemed to see past the rough exterior of people like Townes, Gram, The Band, and see and hear the beauty in the music. I guess she was moved just like you and me.

longitudes: She does have a sharp ear. Like so many of the greats, Townes had a substance problem and died young. For a while in the 1970s he lived in a shack without plumbing or electricity!

CB: Yeah, the old addiction thing. Who knows the demons he was dealing with? Too bad. I felt for the guy. Watched a doc on his life and shed a few tears.

longitudes: That might have been Be Here to Love Me from 2004. I first heard about him when Miss Emmylou raved about him in some old TV doc. Do you have a favorite album?old quarter

CB: That’s another hard one. You really can’t lose with any of them. When I think of Townes I always think of the wealth of songs he had. The one that always comes to mind is “Tecumseh Valley.” I get taken into that story every time and I’ve heard it more times than I can remember.

longitudes: I find his music hard to pigeonhole, which might be part of his appeal. He’s been called “outlaw country,” but I’m not sure that’s accurate, since his songs seem deeper, more literate, closer to folk. Maybe he lives on the county line between outlaw folk-country and singer-songwriter?

CB: I like your “hard to pigeonhole” thought. Labels mean so many things to different people. Townes is so much more than all those labels. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could ask him? Probably give you a different answer every time.

longitudes: Ha! He did have a crafty sense of humor. But he’s also good bummer music. Sorta white boys’ blues. Great to listen to when you’re a little down and out. Kind of a stripped-down Jackson Browne turned Texas troubadour.

CB: Oh yeah, I mean, how can you beat a song like “Waiting Around to Die.” How many times did you hear that on the radio? I would guess never.

longitudes: CB, what do you say we ratchet up the beverages a little? These Lone Stars are cold, but kinda weak. Wonder if Canadian brews are legal here in Texas. Lowell??

CB: It’s a known fact that beer gets weaker the farther you get from the Frozen North. Lowell keeps the good stuff in his secret fridge in the back. Crack us a couple Mooseheads, fella.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned “Pancho and Lefty.” That might be his best-known song: Livin’ on the road, my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath’s as hard as kerosene. That’s great writing. You wear your skin. And the iron and kerosene similes. The road is not for sissies, CB.

CB: Those lyrics are such a good example of his words and what they conjure up for you and me and anyone else who takes the time to listen. That “breath as hard as kerosene,” he knows that stuff. Him and Guy Clark came up to play in my area, which is about as far away from Texas as you can get. Townes couldn’t get past the border, so Guy played the show solo with a shit-eating grin on his face. Probably thinking about another fucked-up road story. It was a great show. Guy played a couple of his buddy’s tunes.townes 3

longitudes: I discovered Guy Clark, another songwriter’s songwriter, from his connection with Townes. Another Townes song I love is the bittersweet “To Live is to Fly,” which is on his gravestone. The title alone makes me shiver. “No Place to Fall,” just a simple love song, but like to make you cry. Also, “If I Needed You,” which came to him in a dream. Not your typical love song. He shifts the pronouns around. He also mentions “Loop and Lil,” who were pet parakeets…how’d he get away with that?!

CB: You keep throwing those songs at me, I just might have to go on another Van Zandt binge. He gets away with it, Pete, because they are beautiful songs sung with truth.

longitudes: “Beautiful songs sung with truth” sums it up. He comes off as just a regular fellow who can play a little, sing a little. But there’s a lot of talent underneath that casual exterior.

CB: His live recordings are sprinkled with it. I can imagine him sitting with us right here in this bar singing a little, drinking a little, laughing a lot and pretty much not wanting to be anywhere else. Just like me. I might not be going home tonight.

longitudes: Well, if you need to stay another night, Juanita at Motel 7 makes a fine bed. Anyway, if you could only choose one word to describe Townes and his music, what would it be?

CB: I could throw out a truckload, but because you are only giving me one word, it has to be special. Just like you and me, Pete. Special. Plus that word has come up a few times since we sat down.

longitudes: Great word, my friend. I’ll choose pure. Townes Van Zandt had a special kind of purity.

Well, muchas gracias, muchacho, for meeting me in the Texas Rose Café. I think ole Townes would be pleased to know of our rendezvous. (Thanks, Lowell, I’ll eat it here.) Townes, here’s to you!

(Sound of clinking glasses).

 

(Header photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)