This past week I finished a personal project that I have been working on since June, 2014. It has been a long but rewarding journey. I don’t have a finished product to share with the world, just a lot of thoughts and insights about the process.
In 2014 a friend told me about a book called 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, edited by Robert Dimery. As a fan of all kinds of music, that sounded like a challenge. I began the process with an online list available at https://www.discogs.com/lists/1001-Albums-You-Must-Hear-Before-You-Die/18222. For some reason, there are albums left off the chronological Discogs list. For some reason it also ends with #975. I ended up buying the 2010 edition of the book (it has been updated with new entries since then).
Many of the albums are ones I have heard many, many times. There were others that were completely new to me, some by artists I had never heard of. Most fell someplace in the middle, artists and albums I knew about but had never heard in their entirety. I listened to them through my own collection, via Spotify (and yes, I’m aware of some of the problems with Spotify and what artists make from it), and in a few rare instances, through YouTube. Even with all of this there were some, a very small percentage, that were simply not readily available that I have not heard (considering the ‟before you die caveat”, maybe I’m better off not actually hearing all 1001).
So I embarked, starting with In The Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra in 1955 and ending with It’s Blitz by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2009. I listened in order and gave everything at least two listens (with a couple of exceptions for things that I really, really didn’t like... I’m looking at you, Cannibal Corpse). I didn’t stop listening to other albums, new stuff as it came out or as I discovered it outside the confines of the list, or old favorites as the whim occurred. But every week I would create a playlist of whatever the next few of the 1001 albums came next.
The introduction to the book gives some of their rationale, but of course any list like this is open to debate and disagreement. Soundtracks with multiple artists were left off, so Saturday Night Fever, one of the best-selling albums of all time was not included. Purple Rain was allowed because it is essentially a Prince album. It was not just popular chart-toppers. The Velvet Underground and The Stooges are everyone’s top examples of bands that influenced everyone but sold no records when they were actually together, so they were rightfully on the list.
It was a list that included many genres, though Rock and it’s relatives were the most represented. There were a few Jazz classics included. Bitches Brew by Miles Davis was there, of course. Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington are there, among a few others. Country seems to be underrepresented to me, with a couple of live Johnny Cash, two of Willie Nelson’s 70s records, a Merle Haggard and a Loretta Lynn and very little else. Hair Metal was huge in the 80s and most of it is completely ignored. Disco, considering how omnipresent it was in the 70s, felt fairly absent with only two albums by Chic really representing the genre. Nile Rogers went on to be a major force in many contexts, so Chic is understandable, but no Donna Summer? Maybe it’s because Disco was such a singles oriented movement that there simply weren’t any whole albums that met whatever criteria they used.
Rap and Hip Hop were pretty well-represented and my ears are much more ready for it now than at the time, so I’m glad for the opportunity to listen to it with a more open mind than I originally had (and some thanks for that goes to Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree graphic novel series for giving a social context I simply didn’t have before). Public Enemy speaks of an experience I will never have but they gave voice to that experience in ways that are important for me to hear. Ice T spoke truths about society that are still true. Tribe Called Quest and Missy Elliot made me want to groove. Ice Cube did nothing for me at all.
I was surprised at how many classic albums I had never heard in their entirety. Records and CDs are expensive and until the advent of streaming music services it just wasn’t possible. I’m familiar with the hits of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but until this project I had never listened to a full album. The same was true for Simon and Garfunkel, and The Band, and many, many others. I consider myself a huge music fan, but these are incredible gaps in my experience.
Listening to it in order was fascinating. I could hear the various eras of music and the sounds they encapsulated. I could also hear the slow changes as they came about. The Stooges are usually mentioned as an early influence on Punk, but I could hear how Glam led there as well. Then the first album by The Dictators showed up and there was an ear-opening moment of recognition of that being where a lot of the later sound came from. It was also interesting to realize the very different things that were happening at the same time and hearing them juxtaposed gave a much larger picture of any given moment in music history. One of the clearest examples of this for me was listening to Thriller by Michael Jackson followed immediately by Junkyard by the the Birthday Party (one of Nick Cave’s early bands), both released in 1982. I have both of these on my Ipod and am familiar with both, but I can’t think of too many more dissimilar examples to show up back-to-back on the list.
Some artists feel over-represented. The Beatles, obviously, though I am a fan and understand this. Both Elton John and Stevie Wonder have a raft of their 70s releases on the list, though it’s difficult to argue with any of them. David Bowie is also well-represented, which is no surprise.
I was happy to see some of my personal favorite but more obscure artists show up. Lloyd Cole and The Commotions Rattlesnakes is an all time top favorite of mine and it was there (no other Lloyd Cole made the list though he has released many, many albums). Japan has a single entry with Quiet Life (the one I would have chosen). It’s interesting to note that KISS, a much more successful and well known band, than Lloyd Cole and Japan (and my favorite band as a teen), also has only one album on the list with Destroyer (also the one I would have chosen).
Some choices seemed strange to me, based on personal taste and my own knowledge of music. Could a Nine Inch Nails fan explain to me why The Downward Spiral is here instead of Pretty Hate Machine? As a huge fan of PJ Harvey I was happy to see Dry, Rid of Me, and Stories From the City Stories From the Sea on the list. All great albums, but for me To Bring You My Love is the record where she branched out and really established herself as a creative force (like Rattlesnakes, this is a desert island disc for me, so maybe I can’t see it clearly). Nick Cave is on the list a couple of times, as he should be, but I can name at least five of his releases that aren’t represented that are better than the Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus double album. Alice Cooper only made the list in the context of the full lineup of the original Alice Cooper Group and his solo work was ignored. With the exception of Welcome to my Nightmare that’s probably how it should be.
Then, of course there are the artists who hold a special meaning to me that aren’t on the list, and as much as I might love them I understand why they’re not here. The Sweet had thirteen top ten hits in England and Europe, but other than Ballroom Blitz and Fox on the Run they’re fairly unknown in the States. They were mostly a singles band anyway, so even though Give Us a Wink was a seminal album in my youth, I can’t say I’m surprised they didn’t make the cut. Likewise bands like The Nails (who really should be known for more than their one 80s hit 88 Lines About 44 Women), and The Vapors (Turning Japanese), and The Jazz Butcher, and The Epoxies, all of whom I love, but even I can’t really make an argument for inclusion.
As may be expected, even though I listen to music from a lot of eras and styles, I did find my interest in the list waning in the 90s and 00s. While I am open to new things I recognize that very little is going to move me in the same way that my earliest experiences of becoming a fan did. The mid-70s up through the late 80s was my prime period of discovery and it is the sounds of that time that resonate with me most strongly. There are exceptions, of course. Both Nick Cave and PJ Harvey are primarily 90s phenomenons for me, and they are easily in my all time fave list. I really got into the White Stripes for about three albums. But, in general, I didn’t discover a lot of new stuff from the later era that moved me. This is not me saying that new music sucks. I’m sure someone fifteen to twenty years younger than me would have a very different experience with this list. Or fifteen to twenty years older.
There is so much more to this experience... Artists and genres I haven’t mentioned. New-to-me things I loved, things I didn’t like at all. Being reminded of stuff I used to like and had forgotten about. Putting together the pieces and following the influences and drawing the connections between. Finding new musical trails to follow. Delving deeper into an artist’s catalog than just the one or two albums represented here. Insights I had about the world and myself in relation to the music.
The biggest problem is now that I’m done I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to listen to next. I’ve grown used to having my weekly listening chosen for me.
Music is so personal that there is no right or wrong or definitive ‟Best Of” list. Certain sounds move you, or they don’t. They speak your language, or they don’t. Part of my reason for working my way through this was to expose myself to new languages and see what I could learn. A lot of it moved me. A lot of it didn’t. But I am richer for the experience. I have more music in my soul.
And that is never a bad thing.