Interesting how the iPod has made this whole matter of picking desert island discs obsolete. We're so spoiled! If electricity is on the island (via some wire hooked up by Elizabeth Bishop that "limply leashes the whole affair / to something off behind the dunes"), we're not bringing five albums—we're bringing all of them. The iPod has Crusoed the hell out of solitude; it's made it habitable in a way Defoe never could have imagined. Hell, habitable—it's made it possible for us to become bored by music on our island. That's why I like the prospect of going to an island with just a cruddy old CD player and no iPod dock: it would make me actually listen to the music I brought with me. I think the real question here is not which five albums you'd bring to a theoretical island, but which music delivery device. Record player? Walkman? Discman? iPod? How would you use your solitude? Would you use it to discipline and expand your relationship to the music you love, or would you want to have as many musical options as possible? Who would have the courage to pick just five albums?
Me, I'd probably chicken out and bring my iPod. I'm frustrated with just five selections—even seven would be better. Or eight. Or ten. I like my five below, but I'm still thinking of replacing one with this glorious new Kanye West album…
1) Billie Holiday & Lester Young, Complete Recordings (2005)
This is not even an album. And I don't own it. Yet. I just ordered it from a seller in the UK through Amazon. It's a compilation of "all"—I'll explain the quotes—the joint recordings made by Billie Holiday and Lester Young on a 2-CD set. I've wanted a compilation like this for some time; my favorite recordings of both artists are the ones they made with each other, but for most of my life no single collection celebrating their collaboration has existed. I've gotten by with a playlist cobbled together from multiple Billie and Lester discs. When asked to write this piece, I immediately thought of a complete Holiday & Young compilation and took a peek on Amazon to see if some sparkling new box set had come out—but I only found this 2-CD import released by Definitive Spain. And I suppose it will do, but it's not even complete! The album contents on Amazon reveal mysterious omissions, such as the two classic recordings of "Fine and Mellow" made in December of 1957, one a test tape for the CBS program The Sound of Jazz and the other a recording of the televised performance three days later. No Holiday-Young compilation is complete without these late recordings—they are both haunting versions. The rapport between the two artists is so touching, as is the sense of what they once were, separately but especially together, how diminished they are from their younger, first flowering selves. For it is the early Columbia recordings of Holiday and Young made between 1937 and 1939 that really get me, especially that first magical session on January 25, 1937 that produced "This Year's Kisses," a version of the Irving Berlin standard that sounds like the true dawn of American music. Here we have on one record date Holiday, Young, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Buck Clayton and the holy trinity of the Basie rhythm section: Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones. All jazz greats, but at the time mostly unknown to the public (with the exception of Wilson and Goodman) and some unknown to each other. And they play with the joy of mutual inspiration and discovery, transforming what should be melancholy material into a beacon of youth, hope and happiness. Even in such company, the brilliance of Holiday—who was just 21—and Young stands out—his solos on "This Year's Kisses" and "I Must Have That Man" are staggering—as they embark on their loving collaborative voyage, hearing and making each other better than everyone else.
2) Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs: Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Herbert von Karajan, conductor; Berlin Philharmonic (1974)
This is music to die to. The final completed works of the greatest composer of the twentieth century not named Ellington or Monk, composed in 1948 at the age of 84. In grand, Romantic fashion, Strauss didn't live to hear the premiere in London in 1950 featuring Kirsten Flagstad, the soprano he purportedly had in mind when he composed the songs. With respect to Flagstad, I think Strauss would have preferred Gundula Janowitz. Many sopranos have tried these songs, some with greater dramatic range than Janowitz, but it is impossible not to think the songs were written for her when you listen to this recording. A pure, soaring, silky voice—words like "silky" just don't cut it. Her voice is what you imagine when you imagine great, transcendent, wordless song, the idea of song you have in mind before you hear any actual arias or lieder. Hers is one of the voices you hear in that scene in The Shawshenk Redemption when Andy Dufresne plays the Contessa/Susanna duet from Le Nozze di Figaro for all the prisoners to hear. The warmth and hopefulness and understanding of her tone, delicate but with such strength behind it, much like the tone of early Lester Young. Just an effortless shining. And behind her, the high seduction of Herbert von Karajan, surely the sexiest conductor of the twentieth century, with by far the coolest head of hair. Do we really need any other music to sum up life than this song cycle? Spring. September. Going to Sleep. At Sunset. The hopefulness of the first two songs, even with the move into autumn, then the darker mood at the beginning of the third, breaking into a huge, joyous, spiritual expansiveness after the heartbreaking violin solo in the middle, one of the few violin solos I can stand. The soul unwatched wants to soar in free flight, says Herman Hesse. The majestic acceptance of death in the final song by Eichendorff, closing with the killer last line: "ist dies etwa der Tod?" (Is this perhaps death?) Strauss quotes the Transfiguration theme from his earlier tone poem Death and Transfiguration, conveniently also included on this CD by Deutsche Grammophon along with Metamorphoses, his WWII elegy, making this the perfect program of music for your desert island death.
3) Tom Waits, Small Change (1976)
How do you pick one Tom Waits album? Well, take the one from the year you were born. Recording for Small Change, the Waits album that haunts me more than any other, was completed on July 29, 1976, just five days before the day of my birth. Maybe if this hadn't happened, I would've turned out to be a doctor or lawyer like my parents wanted, not a poet. Waits gave me that little kick into a dark American landscape defined by a "battered old suitcase / to a hotel someplace / and a wound that will never heal," as he sings at the end of "Tom Traubert's Blues," the epic opener to the album that out-Wastelands The Waste Land. You'd have to take this album to a desert island because Waits is the one who made the island. Consider this album your passport. I love the way it opens with the great one-two punch of "Tom Traubert's Blues" and "Step Right Up," such a huge contrast in tempo and tone, effectively establishing Waits's mastery of both the tragic and comic modes. You're in two totally different places with these songs. The groove he gets into in "Step Right Up"! Live in it laugh in it love in it swim in it sleep in it live in it swim in it laugh in it love in it. One hilarious riff (rip) on advertisement after another. The large print giveth and the small print taketh away. So many great lines and rhymes on this album; there's a seemingly inexhaustible flow of inspiration coming from this deep, gravelly source. Wasted and wounded, it aint what the moon did. Spatula / bachelors. He's a lawyer / he aint the one for ya. The last line of the surrealist masterpiece "The Piano Has Been Drinking"—not me, not me, not me, not me, not me—like a line out of King Lear. The way the album ends with the beautiful quotation of "The Star-Spangled Banner—if I hurry I just might / get off before the dawn's early light—rescuing the original beauty of the phrase from so many mundane baseball games. I have to thank Nicky Beer for lending me this album in 1999 and introducing me to Tom Waits; the voice scared the shit out of me at first, but some scourge in it kept compelling me to come back until soon it was all I could drink.
4) Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto, featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto (1964)
Is this corny? One girl I played this for thought it was corny. End of story. But as I get older this album has less of an effect on me, perhaps because I've listened to it and played it for people and given it as a gift more than any other album I own. I'm starting to worry about myself. Am I getting jaded and cynical? I'm itching to replace this album with Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which should tell you where I'm at right now. I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most. Save me, Stan Getz! For years when anyone asked me what my favorite album was, I could answer with complete assurance: Getz/Gilberto. I simply never got sick of it; I'd tire out everything else. Stan Getz was known as "The Sound" for a reason. There's an endlessness to the sound in these songs; and, great as Jobim and the Gilbertos are, Getz is the true author of that endlessness. His solos just keep going, gust after gust taking you to a distant landscape of longing and dream. Listen to Jobim or either of the Gilbertos without Getz and you can see what he brings to their wonderfully intimate music: infinite space. Feathery and supple as his tone is, there's something searing to the sound, some fierce burning that propels Getz past the merely pretty. Before I heard Getz I went along with the notion that white people couldn't play jazz. Then someone recommended this album. During the first few bars of Getz's solo on "The Girl from Ipanema," I sort of swooned onto my bed and didn't get up again until the album was over. This was the sound I'd been looking for; I felt my whole life up to that point had been an auditory sham. I kept trying to find more helpings of it, buying other Getz and Gilberto albums, but nothing gave me quite the same transport. This album is it: the definitive expression of human longing. The only thing is, it might be redundant on a desert island, evocative as it is of desert islands…
5) The Philistines Jr., If a Band Plays in the Woods…? (2010)
Maybe you've never heard of them. Which is exactly what the title of their new album presupposes. Do they exist? For years I wasn't sure. The Philistines were my favorite band in college (other than, you know, Pavement), and I got to know them personally when I became friends with Tarquin Katis, the band's bassist and brother of frontman Peter Katis, who was a year ahead of me at Yale. I loved the warmth, humor and homemade feel of their songs, how they always wrote about each other, Mom & Dad Katis, the extended family of their friends, mythologizing everyone into heroic figures. I wanted to be a part of this family. And when I met Tarquin and Peter, they wonderfully just welcomed me in like it was no big deal. They were exactly the same in their real lives as they were in their songs, no pretentiousness or artistic remove whatsoever. Their recording studio was in the basement of their parents' house at 145 Old Mill Road in Greenwich, CT, where Peter still lived. Peter wrote about living with his parents in "145 Old Mill Road," one of the greatest songs you've never heard, working in voice-overs of his mom and dad commenting on the situation, his mom saying, "No comment," his dad touchingly saying he's always preferred dead white European composers but is growing to appreciate the Philistines' music—and that it's still not too late for the Katis boys to apply to medical school. I really connected with this line about medical school. But after the Philistines' magisterial second album came out, the conceptual Sinking of the S. S. Danehower (the original soundtrack for a film about their friends Paul & Dave Danehower that has yet to be made), Tarquin graduated, I graduated, and I moved to Houston to get my MFA and lost touch with virtually all my old friends. This was before the days of Facebook. I didn't even know the Philistines' third album had come out (in 2000) until a couple of years after it happened, and when I finally listened to it, it sounded scattered, like the band didn't really know where it was going in the digital age (the album title, Analog vs. Digital, predicted this predicament). I worried that the band was going to disappear—they couldn't keep writing about themselves, could they?—and then they did disappear. For ten years. Peter resurfaced as a star indie producer, producing hit albums for Interpol and The National among others, and I figured he'd moved out of his parents' house and made some kind of grown man's decision to let the Philistines die. That was all right. But recently on a lark I searched for Tarquin on Facebook and found him—and the Philistines' new album. An unassuming cover—a rough sketch of a telephone pole and wires—and a quizzical title: not the most promising signs. But the album is a masterpiece. Incredibly, the Philistines are still singing about themselves—from the first track: "Well we write the same songs over and over again / and we play the same shows over and over and over and over and over again, and over and over again"—but there's a greater grandeur to their sound, an epic might to their musings on the mundane. They sing about their cats fighting and band practice and people leaving garbage by the bus stop and somehow there's a voyage in all this, as if these were not small concerns but sallies into what's most sacredly human. The refrain that recurs throughout the album in different settings—"Hey, hey, it's the end of the world again / here we are just waiting for everything to end"—is sing-along in its simplicity yet carries a wry, complex understanding of the repetitiousness of human drama, how funny our despair is, sounding the same theme "with the notes and words re-arranged." What better way to wake up on a desert island than with this refrain in your head, teaching you what Peter Katis calls a "hopeful sadness"?