Pick 3, Vol. 8: Desert Island Albums

The FOTS team, with much complaining, selects the three CDs they’d like to have with them after a plane/boat/zeppelin crash.

DAVID

I’m well aware of how impossible this challenge is, and spent several days agonizing over my own choices. How do you narrow down the entire spectrum of your musical tastes to three single albums? No “Greatest Hits,” no compilations? Well, if I were Hurley on Lost (plus the ability to rig my Discman to run on solar power), here’s what I’d want with me for 108 days:

A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay (2002)
Key Tracks: “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face,” “A Rush of Blood to the Head”

Long before Coldplay became a 40-Year-Old Virgin punchline and the poster children for pretentious stadium rock, they released two darn-near-perfect albums. Their second, A Rush of Blood to the Head, went big my junior year of high school, and had primo rotation in my car: I’d argue there’s not a bad track on it. Frontman Chris Martin, a sucker for his own falsetto, keeps it under control on pounding tracks like “Politik,” “Amsterdam,” and ubiquitous smash hit “Clocks” with its Moby-like waterfall of a piano melody. But it’s “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” that most rewards repeat listens — hey, remember when they used to use acoustic guitars? — with its unusual tuning and simple but effective lead lines from Jonny Buckland. Little these guys have done since has touched those early days (though I like a lot of Viva la Vida), but for one shining moment in the early aughts, Coldplay was cool, and everyone agreed.

The Phosphorescent Blues, Punch Brothers (2015)
Key Tracks: “Familiarity,” “Julep,” “Between First and A”

This isn’t just recency bias: it’s rare to discover a band and feel like you’ve been listening to them your whole life, but that’s exactly what happened between me and the Punch Brothers earlier this year. Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile (who I’d known from Nickel Creek) is a literal certified genius, and has stretched bluegrass music in every conceivable direction through his solo and collaborative works. The latest album from his current outfit, Phosphorescent Blues, is a masterpiece of technical wizardry and evocative songwriting, and my early pick for album of the year. (Hear that, Caleb?) With help from super-producer T Bone Burnett it combines all of Thile’s ideas about melody and arrangement into what I’d call “Prog-Grass,” a potent mix of folk rock, chamber pop, and heavy jazz influences. Check out “Familiarity,” which I linked above, for all of that in an epic ten-minute suite. (If your brains aren’t blown out by the middle stretch beginning around 2:45, maybe we can’t be friends.) No exaggeration: after I bought this album, it was the only thing I listened to for a full week. I think I’d be fine with it on a desert island.

Dave Grusin Presents GRP All-Star Big Band Live (1993)
Key Tracks: “Sing Sing Sing,” “Cherokee”

I’ve got Alternative and Americana, so that leaves the third strand: Jazz. This was the hardest choice of all. Brubeck’s Time Out? Jamie Cullum’s The Pursuit? Coltrane, or Mingus, or Count Basie? In the end I had to go back to the beginning, and the first jazz album I ever listened to (thanks, Dad): this live recording from 1993, where pianist Dave Grusin energetically led a murderer’s row of performers (Eric Marienthal on sax, John Patitucci on bass, Arturo Sandoval and Randy Brecker on trumpet, and on and on) through standards like “Oleo” and “Manteca,” with space for some electrifying, hold-your-breath solos. (A lightning-fast “Cherokee” in particular is ridiculous.) In my mind, this is the defining performance anywhere of “Sing Sing Sing,” featuring the incomparable, long-haired Dave Weckl on drums. Big Band has always been more my speed than the “hipper,” classic stuff (though I’ll spin Kind of Blue from time to time), and probably informed my love of the movie Whiplash as much as anything else. It all started here.

CHASE

Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan (1975)
Key Tracks: “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Idiot Wind,” “Shelter From the Storm”

There’s a reason why Bob Dylan’s recent successes are frequently referred to as “his best album since Blood on the Tracks.” Following a string of flops, Dylan leaned on his collapsing marriage to craft the greatest chronicle of a failed relationship in rock history. It’s not strictly a breakup album — its ten songs chronicle a relationship from start to finish through the good, the bad, and the painful as only Dylan could craft it. Blood isn’t sequential. That would be too simple. Rather, the songs slide back and forth across time and space as Dylan attempts a new, less linear type of songwriting. Opener “Tangled Up in Blue” is a journey across jumbled memories. The first 95% of “Idiot Wind” is the most venomous song in the Dylan catalogue before the singer’s last second hint of remorse. But it’s “Shelter from the Storm” that always gets me with its simple guitar and biblical imagery: “In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes / I bargained for salvation and she give me a lethal dose,” Dylan laments in his typical lyrical perfection. What else would you expect? It’s a classic from Rock’s poet laureate.

A Love Supreme, John Coltrane (1965)
Key Tracks: “A Love Supreme, Pt. 1: Acknowledgement” and “A Love Supreme, Pt. 4: Psalm”

I’ve already waxed poetic about my love of Kanye West, and it pains me to leave My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy off this list, but doing so gives me a chance to focus on another form of historically black music: Jazz. John Coltrane’s seminal A Love Supreme is, for me, the most spiritual work ever pressed to wax. A four-part suite broken into three tracks, the jazz classic is an album-long hymn of praise that the newly religious Coltrane offers to God. It’s stunning that the coupling of just percussion, bass, piano, and Coltrane’s tenor sax can offer up sounds that are this deeply expressive. You can practically hear the words of the poem printed in the album’s gatefold transmuted through Coltrane’s saxophone. A Love Supreme is a clear divider in Coltrane’s oeuvre, separating his early hard-bop and modal classics from his later experimentalism. The work straddles both camps, accessible enough to be palatable and daring enough to be revolutionary. The great saxophonist would die just two years later from liver cancer, but this grand religious musical statement would lead to him ultimately being canonized as a saint by the African Orthodox Church. In Coltrane’s own words, “Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.”

I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, Bright Eyes (2005)
Key Tracks: “At the Bottom of Everything,” “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order,” and “Road to Joy”

I love them all, but the albums listed here aren’t actually my three all-time favorites. Instead, they represent a variety that I’d like to have with me on a desert island. That said, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning is, indeed, my favorite album. If Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter of all time, then Conor Oberst is the greatest songwriter of my generation. Wide Awake balances personal narrative with social commentary, largely rooted in Obert’s disillusionment with America in the Iraq War era. “We must memorize nine numbers and deny we have a soul,” he sings in his typical folk rock style, “and in this endless race for property and privilege to be won, we must run.” Obert’s lyrics are often harsh reality, and his voice can be caustic on new listeners, but he knows a deep truth about music: with a tune behind you, you can tell the world just about anything. “I could have been a famous singer if I had someone else’s voice” he acknowledges at the album’s close, but he needn’t have worried. Battered, bruised, and socially aware, this is the voice of my generation, and Wide Awake clearly marks my personal turn to musical adulthood.

NATHAN

Si*Sé, Si*Sé (2001)
Key Tracks: “Steppin’ Out,” “Cuando,” “Bizcocho Amargo”

I figure you can’t be stuck on an island in the summer without Si*Sé, because the NYC-based bilingual quintet basically sounds like someone’s singing a sexy summertime beach sunset into your ear. Self proclaimed as “electronic soul”, Si*Sé blends electronic riffs, classical instruments and the rich, impassioned vocals of Carol C into a unique musical experience that ranges from mellow and haunting (“Slip Away“, “I Want You To“) to spunky and poppy (“Steppin’ Out”, “Dolemite“) to downright triumphant (“Cuando“). The album has an almost effortless range that works to preserve every listen-through as a seemingly fresh one that, as luck would have it, would fit wonderfully on any desert island.

Colour the Small One, Sia (2004)
Key Tracks: “Breathe Me,” “Butterflies,” “Where I Belong”

With the release of her most recent album, 1000 Forms of Fear and the “Chandelier” single, the world at large was finally exposed to the emotional, quirky brilliance of music’s shyest superstar, Sia. Her move into outright pop has been a gradual one, with each of her previous albums drifting closer and closer to the mainstream while still retaining her trademark qualities of being unfathomably catchy yet still feeling deeply personal. The most beautiful of all her works, in this writer’s opinion, is her hauntingly intimate third album, the masterpiece Colour the Small One — and it’s a perfect album if you haven’t had a good, hard, all-by-yourself-for-no-reason cry in a while (which is something you’d probably still want every now and again on a desert island). The most well-known track from this album, and the most heartbreaking, is “Breathe Me”, a sparse piano-centric piece that you’ve probably already heard, you just didn’t know it. Such is Sia, an artist of many, many, many talents.

The Garden, Zero 7 (2006)
Key Tracks: “Throw It All Away,” “You’re My Flame,” “Waiting to Die”

Okay, so maybe it’s cheating for me to use Zero 7 considering that Sia has been a longtime collaborator, and she sings on all my favorite tracks of this album, but I don’t really care — Zero 7 is still awesome. Although featuring a revolving, eclectic, list of talented performers, the permanent, core members of the group are a duo of sound engineers from London that have consistently generated a glorious library of downtempo electronica since their debut in 2001. While their discography has the coveted quality of being predominantly solid “no-skip” albums, no album of theirs embodies this better than The Garden, which is good mellow fun from head to toe, every time, any time. Why not bring an album like that along?

BRIAN

Bringing it All Back Home, Bob Dylan (1965)
Key Tracks: “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

When I first thought of doing this, I knew for a fact I was going to have a Bob Dylan album. Since Chase stole my other plausible choice, I was left with Bob’s most lyrical album. BABH is where he’s his most playful, energetic, and perhaps even aggressive. “Homesick Blues” is perhaps most famous for its music video, but it’s also the closest to rap Bob ever got. “Love Minus/Zero” (and also “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”) is an interesting study in writing the world’s most confrontational love song, and the capper, probably my favorite Dylan song, is as punchy and defiant as any of his more overtly political works but without being tied to a single place and time like “Hurricane” or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” might be. This is my favorite Dylan album and a strong, strong contender for my favorite ever album. I’ll listen to it when I want to feel Transcendent and introspective.

Discovery, Daft Punk (2001)
Key Tracks: “Digital Love,” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” Something About Us.”

I’ll admit that Daft Punk, as much as I love them, wouldn’t be my first thought where this subject is concerned, but this album more than warrants selection. If I were being perfectly honest, I’d probably take 1965’s Rubber Soul (by some obscure British band or something), but I don’t want to paint myself as someone who only listens to 60s acts, nor would I want to restrict my genres whist I slowly starve to death alone on an island. Gotta have priorities.

Anyways, Discovery (the inverse of “Very Disco,” which is represented by the latin “Veridis Quo” on the album because Daft Punk are strange and knew nerds would appreciate that) is Daft Punk’s most powerful and interesting album by quite a lot. It’s less bogged down paying homage to anyone or anything else and more propelled by the band’s central joke/premise: what if robots felt emotion? This is embodied by the three songs I chose: “Digital Love,” one of the most immaculately produced songs ever made, “H, B, F, S,” one of the most sampled songs ever made, and “Something About Us,” one of the most earnestly romantic songs ever made. I’ll listen to it when I want to feel spontaneous and also like a robot.

Ride the Lightning, Metallica (1984)
Key Tracks: “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Fade to Black,” “Call of Ktulu.”

To be as rounded as possible, I chose to bring some metal into the equation. What better choice than my favorite metal band’s best album?

RTL is Metallica at the peak of their powers, just before the death of Cliff Burton made their subject matter less mature and their musical structure less intricate. RTL is the broadest Metallica album, tackling themes like suicide, fear of death, Mutually Assured Destruction, the injustices of the American prison system, the book of Exodus, H.P. Lovecraft and cryogenic sleep. While “Master of Puppets” is often considered the pinnacle of Metallica’s form, RTL is their most experimental album. It’s the biggest reason why Cliff Burton was so important to the band and “Fade to Black” is the band’s single best song. I’ll listen to it when I feel righteous and sophisticated.

CALEB

The Beatles, The Beatles (1968)
Key Tracks: “Mother Nature’s Son,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Dear Prudence”

I’m actually shocked to be the only one here to select a Beatles album. (What is wrong with you guys?) The White Album, as it’s usually referred, has always been my favorite of the band for several reasons. I have a sentimental attachment to it in that it was the first album I ever owned, a gift for me as much as it was for my dad, who bought it for me to put in the CD deck of his car. Choosing The Beatles also seems a bit like bending the rules since it’s probably the only double album on this list, but this is unquestionably the Beatles album to pick. For one, this was the first time the personalities of the band really begin to emerge. George Harrison’s songwriting grabbed the spotlight for the first time with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” both one of his and one of the band’s best songs. Even Ringo Starr’s efforts were solid and surprisingly flattering. It’s a lot of music, at the time considered too much, but nearly fifty years later it still offers so much in all the ground that’s covered. It playfully teased The Beach Boys (“Back in the U.S.S.R”), made nonsense enjoyable (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”), made Radiohead copycats (“Sexy Sadie” = “Karma Police”), and inadvertently created heavy metal (“Helter Skelter“). But the reason I find myself returning to it over and over again is the surprising introspection of the quiet acoustic songs Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison contribute. We’ve all heard “Blackbird,” but “Julia,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “Long, Long, Long” are just as beautiful and affecting. This is the desert album. Getting two more choices feels like cheating.

The Joshua Tree, U2 (1987)
Key Tracks: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You,” “Running to Stand Still”

Part of this premise, as I understand it, involves assuming that the situation you find yourself in is so hopeless that music would be your only avenue for any kind of escape. So if that’s the case, you better choose something here that approaches transcendence. In that regard, U2’s The Joshua Tree is the closest thing I can think of to a slam dunk. (Surely there’s been a movie about a shipwreck survivor with a trailer set to “Where the Streets Have No Name.”) Songs like “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” are era-defining and speak for themselves, but the whole album is filled with the kind of music that crawls and soars where emotions lead. There’s the unrelenting joy of “In God’s Country” and “One Tree Hill” and the bleakness of “Running to Stand Still” and “Mothers of the Disappeared.” The album gives voice to paranoia and anxiety, as well, with “Exit” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” It’s built on extremes. It lifts your spirits, digs into your heartbreak, and stokes the fire of your anger. It compels you to believe in something outside of yourself but encourages you to doubt with some conviction. The other albums I’ve got here provide good listening, but The Joshua Tree gives forced seclusion a soundtrack.

(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, Oasis (1995)
Key Tracks: “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” “Wonderwall,” “Champagne Supernova”

This is the part of the exercise where I start to hate David for assigning it. I spent way too much time agonizing over a list that included Dylan (stolen above; jerks), Radiohead (In Rainbows), The National (Boxer), The Strokes (Is This It?), and Sigur Rós (Ágætis byrjun). But after my first choice above, there isn’t another album I can think of that had a bigger effect on me than Oasis’ megahit sophomore album. Like many people, this was what made me pick up a guitar. Yes, duh, “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova” are on it, but so are “Cast No Shadow” and “She’s Electric.” Every song on here should make you want to play guitar. And just about every song on here makes you want to sing, too. Loudly. I’ve heard “Don’t Look Back in Anger” live a few times now, and I can assure you, that chorus is in the conversation with the best ever written, certainly among the most shoutable. Morning Glory was a huge hit twenty years ago, and the band could never really live up to it. (Artistically, anyway. The follow-up, Be Here Now, sold like a billion copies.) There are surely good reasons why you don’t care about the band anymore, but Morning Glory was a rarity, addictive and important. Rawk ‘n rowl will never die, but Oasis changed how it sounded and made Britpop a lasting phenomenon. Noel Gallagher aimed for The Beatles and obviously came up short. But man, did he cover some distance. The songs on this continue to fill up stadiums and arenas and pubs and parties. They should work great on an uninhabited island.

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