My Favorite Things
1. Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings. Within 41 tracks (and only 29 songs), Robert Johnson's complete recorded output crystallizes and advances the Delta blues, while pointing toward "Sweet Home Chicago" and wherethat city took the blues. While I'd miss Bessie Smith and Johnson's direct mentor Son House, with Johnson you go from the tender "Come on in My Kitchen" to the harrowing "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Hellhound on My Trail," along the way invoking a world of pain and promise and even humor. ("Hot tamales and they're red hot / Yes, I got 'em for sale.") The sheer number of folks who've covered Robert Johnson indicate his influence on rock-n-roll and the blues: Cassandra Wilson, The Rolling Stones, Cat Power,even that awful Eric Clapton, but don't hold that against Mr. Johnson. The point is, even on a desert island, we could recreate not just the blues, but also much of rock-n-roll just through this brief but brilliant collection of songs. He has also written perhaps the best lyric in music: "The blue light was my blues, the red light was my mind."
2. Coltrane, A Love Supreme. It is difficult to decide which of the many Coltrane discs to bring, that is, if one had notice—one could easily go for Giant Steps, or Monk with Coltrane, or Coltrane Live in Japan with its 50-minute version of "My Favorite Things"—but might as well go for the masterpiece. I can't listen to this powerful suite too often; as folks know, it's spiritual music, the kind to be listened to, if not reverently, then at least attentively. But I figure I won't be having too many parties on that desert island, so it'd suit fine.
3. De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising. Out of the world of hip hop, one of the first musical experiences that was wholly mine (as opposed to the soul and reggae and gospel of my childhood that my parents loved and that certainly shaped me), this record holds up. It's not a first love perhaps Run-D.M.C.'s King of Rock qualifies as that—but alongside Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, it's an early long-term relationship. By sampling everyone from Johnny Cash (in the title song) to P. Funk (in "Me, Myself and I") to French language lessons to Hall and Oates, De La reimagined not just hip hop, but music, ruling nothing out. (And in the process, they became one of the first groups sued for sampling without authorization, which in turn started the change in hip hop, from late 80's layered collage to far less interesting 90's hooks.) As a crucial link between what was once new school of Run-D.M.C. and gangsta rap, De La was both social and sensual and surreal and silly. If only all art tried for such…
4. Bob Dylan, Biography. Though it's tempting to choose the long-bootlegged and only recently released Dylan Live: The "King Albert Hall" Concert, the three disc Biography has gotten me through more car trips, bumpy plane rides, and rainy days than I care to admit. More than a greatest hits—indeed, Dylan's so-called Greatest Hits record is far worse than any of his albums, which I think is a great compliment—Biography is instead a great intro to and overview of his work of all eras. Acoustic, electric, bornagain, and bootleg: the songs here provide the kind of variety found between and even within Dylan's albums; while I'd like to list Blood on the Tracks or the Freewheelin or Highway 61 Revisited (I'm not so much a Blonde on Blonde fan as other folks), Biography is still the best gateway drug. Given to me first by a friend and Dylan fan (or should I say "dealer") who said he didn't need 'em, cause soon one wants all the albums anyway. And he's right.
5. Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul. Curtis Mayfield may be more consistent, James Brown may get the party started faster, but for a desert island you can do no better than Redding. Even the white lady on the cover seems to be enjoying it. Redding here provides a schooling of soul sounds, ranging from his own "Respect" (taken to town by Aretha Franklin) to a subtle version of The Temptations' "My Girl" to the Stones' "Satisfaction" (taken to task by Redding himself). Along the way, Redding rips into the late Sam Cooke's "What a Wonderful World" and "A Change Is Gonna Come," songs made even more mournful and meaningful by his voice and phrasing. "I was born by a river in this little old tent / just like this river I've been running ever since" could apply to the wandering waters of our lives, as well as the salt water around this island. There's no "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay," but there is a survival and soulfulness that deserves the album's title—Redding's voice tells us it's awful to be alone, and that we'll never be alone, long as he's here to sing about it.
Records to be smuggled in: Sam Cooke's Night Beat, The Harder They Come; anything by Aretha Franklin; James Brown's Star Time; The Clash; Curtis Mayfield Live; Beck's One Foot in the Grave; or Nirvana's Unplugged (or the band's forthcoming greatest hits).
--Originally published in Crossroads 2002