One of the most crucial packing decisions to make before going out on a book tour is the choice of music. Since I hope to be coming home to my permanent collection eventually, my desert island discs—Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, Elvis Costello’s Get Happy, The Isley Brothers’ 3+3, among them—do not, by definition, make the cut. What I’m looking for is a variety of genres and records that hold up from front to back. Also, the music has to be “right” on long drives, in airports and on planes, and in hotel rooms. Finally, great hip-hop stations can be brought up in every major city, as can the dreaded classic rock, so my carry-along music shouldn’t duplicate what I can readily find on the radio. Anyway, here’s the list for 2002:
Here Come the Miracles, by Steve Wynn
On this two-cd release, Wynn channels Neil Young, VU, Raymond Carver and David Goodis, and comes up with the finest recording of his career. Steve’s axe-work is accomplished throughout (check out his solo on “Good and Bad”), while songs like “There Will Come a Day” showcase both his writing and emotional commitment to the set. It helps that the band he’s working with is so tight (drummer Linda Pitmon is the secret weapon, pushing the players into a honk-party frenzy on tracks like “Smash Myself to Bits.”) Days of Wine and Roses was recently reissued, and you need to own it, but Miracles proves that Steve Wynn’s peak didn’t come with The Dream Syndicate. Trust me, this is the rock record of the year.
Change, by The Dismemberment Plan
I hear rock and jazz, and, as in many of the D.C. punk bands who absorbed the sound of this city, an undercurrent of funk. Great songwriting, hooks that rise up after repeated listenings, and a lead singer whose voice is an instrument unto itself. The Plan has been promising to deliver a great one for some time, and this is it. Brought to you by the cool people at DeSoto Records, and co-produced by Burning Airlines frontman J. Robbins (check out his new one, Identikit, as well).
Honorable mention: The Argument, by Fugazi.
Sticky Fingers, by the Rolling Stones
If you’re wondering how I could pick one Stones record out of the Jimmy Miller-produced classics, you have to go back to July 4, 1972. The Stones, touring for Sticky Fingers, were playing RFK stadium in D.C. I was fifteen years old. Marijuana and tear gas were heavy in the air. Mick was onstage in full rooster strut, singing “Bitch,” and the girl in front of me was wearing a halter-top and wildly shaking her hips to the beat. In short, it was a life-altering experience. Plus, Sticky Fingers is a damn good record. Bonus points for “Sway,” one of my favorite tracks in the Glimmer Twins catalogue, in which a raging Jagger breaks back into the chaos for the final verse.
Get Up With It, by Miles Davis
The last record originally released in the electric-Miles canon, this is actually a pastiche of tracks recorded between ’70 and ’74, but oddly enough it’s his most unified sounding collection from that era. With sidemen like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, Mtume, Michael Henderson, Sonny Fortune, Pete Cousy, and Reggie Lucas, it’s no wonder that Get Up With It smokes. Worth it alone for the thirty-two minute opening cut, a tribute to Duke Ellington called “He Loved Him Madly.” Other standouts: the hard-driving “Calypso Frelimo” and “Red China Blues,” with Miles blasting muted bursts over the Wade Marcus horn charts. Also recommended: Bitches Brew (the “shot heard ’round the world”), Live-Evil, the first half of Agartha, and, when you really want to get outside your head, On the Corner. The influence of these recordings is still felt, especially in the Bomb-Squad stylings of hip-hop. Jazz purists hate this stuff, but so what? Your father hates your Rage Against the Machine records, too.
Coney Island Baby, by Lou Reed
Paul Westerberg “never traveled far without a little Big Star.” That’s how I feel about Coney Island Baby. Released in the immortal year of 1976, this is the Lou Reed record that will forever be burned into my memory. Contains “Charley’s Girl,” “She’s My Best Friend,” and the transcendent title track.
First runner up: Legendary Hearts. Sing it, Lou.
A Fistful of Film Music, by Ennio Morricone
44 themes and title tracks from the master composer, impressively packaged by Rhino. Yes, the phenomenal spaghetti western stuff is here, but also music from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Mission, Sacco and Vanzetti, Once Upon a Time in America, Grand Slam, and many others. Magnificent and mind-expanding.
El Corazon, by Steve Earle
Practically Steve Earle’s entire catalogue is worth owning. This one presents his broadest sampling of styles (country, bluegrass, acoustic, rock) so it makes my backpack cut. Appropriately, Steve dedicates the album to late, legendary troubadour Townes Van Zandt (“See you when I get there, maestro.”) Every song shines. “Christmas in Washington” is the quiet opener. “N.Y.C.,” with the Supersuckers, is the rave-up. “Taneytown,” with Emmylou Harris on backup vocals, is the rocker. Roll down the windows and turn it up.
Runner-up: The Silos.
Del Este De Los Angeles (Just Another Band from East LA), by Los Lobos
A friend in California sent me this, Los Lobos’ legendary first recording of Mexican standards and party tunes, now remastered. This is the pure stuff, before the arena dates, back when the Wolves were playing for beer money at weddings and restaurants. You don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to get into this, because the feeling in the music transcends language. If it’s not your sort of thing then ignore the recommendation (to keep this in perspective, I’m a Freddie Fender fan, too.) Perfect for your next backyard barbecue, but this works while driving under a winter moon as well. Viva Los Lobos!
Honorable mention: The Black Light, by Calexico.
Summerteeth, by Wilco
The most-played discs in your collection are often the ones you didn’t care for the first time out. Summerteeth, by consensus, is one of those records. Time and again people will tell you that they initially put this one aside, only to return to it later and fall completely under its spell. Since forming Wilco, Jeff Tweedy has chased a hybrid, pop/rock vision; he finds it most successfully with this record. By the way, it’s time to get over Tweedy’s abdication of the alt-country throne he shared with Jay Farrar. Your Uncle Tupelo records are still there for you to enjoy. So is this.
Alternate pick: Utopia Parkway, by Fountains of Wayne.
March 16-20, 1992, by Uncle Tupelo
Alt-country was a way out of rock’s dead end, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. But face it, rarely have the new-movement recordings improved upon the originals. Which is to say that, more often than not, I still reach for Merle Haggard or George Jones (or The Flying Burrito Brothers, for that matter) when I want to hear some country. This all-acoustic collection from Uncle Tupelo is the exception. Great songwriting, ace choice of traditionals, excellent playing, and whiskey-throated vocals that feel earned. Also, it’s one of the best drinking records I own.
Alternates: Strangers Almanac, by Whiskeytown, A Man Under the Influence, by Alejandro Escovedo, and Cul-De-Sac Cowboy, by Little Pink.
Isolation Drills, Guided by Voices
We all know that rock fans can be proprietary about their discoveries. They hold on to the early records like family heirlooms, and feel personally offended when their artists “go commercial.” Similarly, some die-hard GBV fans complain about the high-gloss production on Isolation Drills, saying they prefer the lo-fi, fragmented stuff of old. Okay, Isolation sounds good, but that doesn’t make it a sell-out. I’m into Vampire on Titus just like you guys, but there were some clunkers on those early records (yes, even on Bee Thousand), and here there are none. If you’re into big guitars and big hooks, this is you. Don’t forget to play it loud.
Alternate: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, by Pavement.
Bullitt, by Lalo Schifrin
Bullitt is the ultimate sixties-cool timepiece, and Lalo Schifrin’s soundtrack from the film epitomizes that decade’s swinging sound. “Main Title,” “Ice Pick Mike,” and “Cantata for Combo” (though, inexplicably, the flute solo from the scene is omitted) are all choice cuts for your next cocktail throwdown, but this would be worth owning alone for “Shifting Gears,” the pulse-pounding prelude to the chase scene. For obvious reasons, this cd works best while you’re under the wheel of your favorite car. All that’s missing is the sound of the seat belt clicking into place. Some crime writers take the Hammett Tour while in San Francisco. I take the rental car out and try to get air. (Travel tip: Hertz rents Mustangs.)
Slow Jams of the 70s, Volume 1, Various Artists
If you own the first three volumes of this series from The Right Stuff records, you own a primer for the most beautiful period in American pop-music history. Volume 1 alone includes the likes of Heatwave, Al Green, The Stylistics, The Chi-Lites, Teddy Pendergrass, Norman Conners, The O’Jays, and more. Plus, the eleven-minute, forty-nine second version of “Float On” by the Floaters. Enough said.
In which the cracked genius behind Pavement steps out with his solo move and makes good. Malkmus—funny, complex, and hook-laden—has been in heavy rotation in my cd player since I bought it. Headphone music for English majors, and unlike Radiohead, Mercury Rev, and Spiritualized, this rocks. Plus, “Church on White” builds to the guitar freakout of the year.
Backup unit: Mood Elevator, by Jack Logan.
Here, My Dear, by Marvin Gaye
In 1975, when Marvin Gaye filed for a split from wife Anna Gordy (sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy), the judge ruled that Gaye’s settlement would include the advance money ($305,000) on his next album plus the first $295,000 of its royalties. Gaye fulfilled his commitment with the delivery of Here, My Dear, a seventy-three minute song cycle that describes, in painful detail, the birth and death of love, divorce, and spiritual rebirth. Critically ignored at the time of its release, it is now considered to be one of the most bizarre and powerful records ever issued by a popular artist on a major label. Gaye mixes spaceman funk, traditional soul, layers of vocals, and his beloved doo-wop in a stunning, naked collection of songs. What’s Going On is the one you always hear about, but this is Marvin’s masterpiece.