Here are five records that I love dearly and that I would want with me, for a variety of reasons, if I was ever stranded on a desert island. This was tough — some albums remind you of home, some take you far away, some make you want to dance, and some make you want to destroy a hotel room bureau and run screaming through a parking lot. I loved all kinds of music growing up, from Top 40 to rock n’ roll, folk, soul, and blues music. I was your typical shy kid, I loved to sing, in high school I played in a rock band, and I tried to grow my hair long but ended up looking more like Greg Brady than Eddie Vedder. Here are some albums that will always stick with me.
1) Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan (1965)
This seems like a no-brainer choice. This album is one of the best ever made and, still, just shy of 50 years from its initial release, it sounds wild and dangerous. To me it holds a special place, as does Dylan’s catalog in general. Dylan was the first and only music played for me by my dad since I can remember listening to music at all. This record reminds me of Sunday morning drives to flea markets with my dad in his big black Lincoln Town Car — the summer sun making the leather seats in the back uncomfortably hot, him smoking Garcia Y Vegas in the front and howling out “When your mother sends back all your invitations . . .” with an exaggerated Dylan drawl as “Queen Jane Approximately” spun its way out of the cassette player. When we got there, he’d give me five dollars and I’d run around the flea market aisles chomping on Swedish Fish, looking for old Marine Band harps or other cool stuff. Then we’d eat hotdogs even though it was only 10am, which is generally too early for hot dogs, and get back in the car, leather seats steaming, and take the windy roads back home, hollering “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time toooooooo . . .” from “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Dylan’s voice will always remind me of my dad, and the smell of cigar smoke and Swedish Fish and hot dogs on a Sunday morning.
2) Time (The Revelator) – Gillian Welch (2001)
This album completely blew the doors off what I thought a song was, how I thought about records, and made me realize just how expansive and powerful a great song could be. It does not get any better than this, bare-bones musicality, songs that will leave you bleary-eyed and wandering through memories you didn’t even know you had. I have gotten lost in this album so many times and especially on late and long drives, it has this dark, narcotic, atmosphere that I love. The songs are unhurried and move like glaciers, and Gillian’s voice has such depth and attitude. Take a listen to “Elvis Presley Blues” and “I Dream A Highway” and tell me those aren’t some of the best songs you’ve ever heard. One of my favorites albums for sure, good for raft-building and for keeping a light burning that one day you will be able to leave the sandy shore and head on home.
3) Siamese Dream – The Smashing Pumpkins (1993)
Yes indeed! I love this record and it makes me think of being 15 years old, brace-faced, and scribbling song lyrics on my Earth Science notebook. I think this is one of the best rock records ever, the guitar sounds alone are from another planet and don’t sound like any other album I’ve heard. I remember first seeing the video from “Today” on MTV of this unassuming guy, with a haircut that screamed vacuum salesman more than it did rock n roll, driving around in a stolen ice cream truck, singing with this thin, metallic, voice while this distorted guitar sound rumbled and tore at the speakers. Wow! Who is this?! Siamese Dream, and all the Pumpkin albums, have such an uncompromising mix of sounds and styles of music, which makes them impossible to put in any category or box — there has been no band that has ever tried to cast themselves in their mold. This record has a song called “Silverfuck,” which makes you want to punch holes through dry wall, right next to “Sweet Sweet,” a dark, delicate little nursey-rhymesque song that makes you so pleasantly sad. I love this record. Billy Corgan writes beautiful songs, and, growing up, his music made a huge impression on me. This would be one for the island, whenever you want to think about getting stood up on prom night and drinking Schnapps in the parking lot outside the rollerskating rink.
4) Mule Variations – Tom Waits (1999)
I would have to include a record from one of the greatest American songwriters ever, Tom Waits, and, for me, Mule Variations, combines the perfect amount of clank and boom, gravel and piss, with Waits’ leathery croon, his vivid and detailed storytelling, and songs that you’d want to roll up in your pocket and keep forever. The grand weepers and the grim reapers, as he calls them. From “Take It With Me” to “Filipino Box Spring Hog,” you can find a multitude of places here to hang your hat. You are welcomed inside to look around and soon find yourself in some kind of a weird knick-knack store off the interstate, where you can buy a shrunken head, new floral oven mitts, and a circular saw painted in camouflage. The weird, the old, the new, the ugly, and the beautiful are all here. And, one of my favorites . . . “In a land there’s a town/ And in that town there’s a house/ And in that house there’s a woman/ And in that woman there’s a heart I love/ I’m gonna take it with me when I go” (“Take It With Me”). That has to be the goddamn most beautiful verse I have heard, made more poignant by the thump of the piano pedals and him scratching his stubble into the microphone as the main piano theme fades away. Most of even the best songwriters are commercial airline pilots, Tom Waits is an astronaut.
5) The Very Best of Otis Redding — Otis Redding (1992)
This may be cheating, since this is a compilation of so many recordings and released well after his death, but this collection of recordings just kills. These songs are so raw and piercing, and his voice and delivery, I could put these songs on and just stare at the ceiling. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long – To Stop Now,” he sings like someone is trying to take it away from him. When he howls and cries you can hear the analog tape being hammered and that classic overdriven sound. I just love the architecture of his voice, this is as real as it gets, and the musicians on these tracks are incredible. If I were on a desert island, and could not sleep, I would put on “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” and think of home, and let the horn lines swim around my head. These are the kind of songs that make you feel good about being alive even when you know everything is not alright. All you can do is put on “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and say fuck it.