I'm too old to have a favorite album. There have been too many—and not just too many albums, but too many genres. There was a time when I was so deeply immersed in blue(new)grass that I might have stood a chance. Before that it was rock/pop, and after that blues, and then soul, and then Irish, Scottish and English music. Though of course, it wasn't that direct. By listening to what the best newgrass musicians were experimenting with, I developed or deepened interests in classical, jazz, and hell, even Bulgarian music. Which is to say that on one level it's all music, but that on the other, how am I to choose between James Brown and Beethoven, or between Gypsy jazz and medieval polyphonic chant? This isn't meant to be a dickish evasion. There are simply too many pieces of music which are profoundly important to me, but which appeal to often opposite parts of myself. It's not that there are no albums which affect me as no other; it's that there are too many.
I've been listening to Paul Simon's voice my entire life. I find it immeasurably reassuring without being dishonest, as most reassuring things are. His album The Rhythm of the Saints, would have to be on any list of my essential belongings. I'd say this is as close as anyone has ever gotten to perfection in pop, but strangely, it is also less fussy than his more celebrated early work with Garfunkel.
For the last two years or so, I've been listening to the Rostropovich/Giulini recording of Dvorak's Cello Concerto, on at least a monthly basis. I can't think of anything to equal it for a certain kind of dramatic beauty, though as with all the best classical music (or art in general, for that matter), Dvorak doesn't allow many feelings to go unqualified—a triumphant passage is quickly undercut, a feeling of unease gives way to something gently rapturous. Never mind that the Saint-Saens which comes afterwards is completely forgettable, this is definitely one of my most important albums.
The Apollo Theatre Presents . In Person! The James Brown Show. OK, so this probably isn't his best live album. In fact, I know it's not. I've heard better ones. But there are so many, and this is the best one I own. If you don't like James Brown it doesn't mean you don't like soul, it means you don't have one. Never mind that some of his later funk period stuff got a bit tedious; at his best, there was no one to match him
Edgar Meyer's Uncommon Ritual has probably influenced my taste in music more than any other album. Meyer tends to be billed as a bluegrass musician because, for better or worse (and sometimes it is for the better) the classical music community has a big old stick up its butt. Nonetheless, this is chamber music. It just happens to be chamber music that often includes banjo, guitar, mandolin, etc. As per usual, Meyer rambles all over the place. There are bits of every conceivable genre here, and it's all carried off perfectly. Nothing else has done so much to broaden my taste.
The Best of the Bothy Band. That's right, I'm including a best of album. Most important god damn Irish band in the history of the world. Screw Bono and the Edge. Seriously, before the Bothy Band, Irish music was largely just catchy tunes played in endless repetitions. By taking those tunes and creating medleys, and by introducing greater dynamics—instruments dropping in and out, dramatic changes in volume, etc—they took what was essentially dance music, and found something in it which is infinitely more.
Oh Christ, I could go on. I haven't gotten to Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappalli, and the Hot Club de France. I haven't talked about Doc Watson, Anonymous 4, Buddy Guy, Radiohead, or Punch Brothers.
The first album I owned was a compellation of folk music for kids...The 1960's kind of folk. I played it on a cheap little turntable that folded up into a plastic suitcase. I don't remember much, but there was a recording of Frankie and Johnny. Pete Seeger I think. Maybe Peter, Paul and Marry. That has to be important, right? The first album I bought with my own money was REM's Automatic for the People. I still like the album, but I wouldn't say it's profoundly important to me. My father used to listen to Robert Johnson singing They're Red Hot. How the hell do you even classify Edith Piaf. Fuck this.
The McBee is a filmmaker and playwright in Baltimore
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