I Recommend an All-Time Desert Island Top 20 (plus a 50-item appendix to prove I am not an old fart) to a Class of 12th Graders

Temporarily deluded that they might want my advice, I put together a list of rekkids I believe every true United States citizen should own for my 12th grade students last week. What follows are a link to a Spotify playlist I put together to further induce them (again, I am deluded: they prefer YouTube), the list of 20 accompanied by annotations aimed at them–as opposed to specialists–and my roughly 2001-2014 old fart repellent Top 50. I am already regretting choices–where’s Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps?

1. Bob Dylan (with some help from The Band): The Basement Tapes. In my not so humble opinion, you are not a true United States citizen if you do not own a Dylan album. This one’s special. Having recovered from a possibly faked motorcycle accident in the middle of some freakish fame, Dylan retired into the country with his pals and wrote some ageless songs that conjured the mysteries, absurdities, and tragedies of life. Curiously, few young Dylan fans have tried it.

2. The John Coltrane Quartet: A Love Supreme. For 37 minutes, the most obsessively questing jazz saxophonist of the 1960s communes with his Higher Power. Some of the most powerful spiritual music ever made in this country. If you don’t believe in Higher Powers, simply dig a 37-minute composition in three distinct movements that will set your soul on fire. If you don’t believe in souls, give your ears a present. Note to drummers: Check out Elvin Jones on this recording. You think you don’t like jazz? Try this before you make up your mind.

3. Hank Williams, Sr.: 40 Greatest Hits. The Hillbilly Shakespeare, as he is known by adepts, wrote 50 of the 100 greatest country songs of all-time before spina bifida, quack doctors, the one-two combination of his mama and his ex-wife pounding away at his self-esteem, and his own self-destructive ways sent him to meet Jesus at 29. And he could sing a little bit—especially if you like voices that channel unvarnished yearning, heartbreak, despair, dread, and, on more than a few occasions, joy. If you don’t know him, our educational system has failed you, but surely you know “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”? Attention students of African descent who might not feel country music has anything to do with them: at Williams’ massively-attended funeral in Montgomery, Alabama, more blacks attended than whites; plus, the man learned his basic stuff from a black musician. Great American music: NEVER SIMPLE.

4. Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime. At this point, punk rock peaked in terms of how expansive it could be and still be called punk rock. Then…the slow decline. “Our band could change your life.”

5. Al Green: Greatest Hits (Expanded Edition). Speaking of Reverend Al, and speaking of the world’s greatest singers, he sounds great enough in his mid-‘60s (check out his most recent album, produced by ?Love of the Roots), but when he was ruling the charts in the ‘70s, no one, not even Aretha Franklin, could match his range, command, and pure seductiveness. This version includes a DVD that shows that his voice was not the only weapon in his arsenal; also of interest is one of Memphis’ greatest studio bands, totally in synchronization with even the most sudden improvisatory impulses of the star.

6. Billie Holiday: Lady Day. This two-disc set showcases 1) a singer of limited range but unmatched intelligence and instincts who could alchemically turn song-crap into eternal gold and who utterly changed one somewhat significant guy’s approach to singing (Frank Sinatra, anyone?) by flirting with the beat, usually trailing titillatingly behind it; 2) an assortment of studio bands that represented the greatest jazz musicians of the Thirties, specifically including Lester Young on tenor, who laces accompaniment through Holiday’s vocals like vines through a trellis; 3) many of the greatest pop songs ever produced in this country—ones she didn’t have to transmute.

7. Professor Longhair: Crawfish Fiesta. Having spent five or six of the greatest weeks of my life (including my honeymoon) in New Orleans, and recognizing that its people have the most indestructible spirit in the country, I’d have to have something from the Crescent City with me while lying in the sand. “Fess,” one among many piano “professors” in the New Orleans tradition, invented his own style: a gumbo of boogie woogie, rhumba, blues, and traditional second-line parade rhythms that is sheer intoxication. No one’s yet matched it, and all New Orleans pianists and most of the city’s citizens have pledged infinite fealty to him. He wrote the Mardi Gras theme song. And he is one of the greatest whistlers in music.

8. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation. The sound of the apocalypse, made primarily by two guys who tune their guitars differently for every song. How’s apocalypse sound? Fun, scary, surprisingly, relentless—like a rollercoaster ride.

9. Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys: The Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume 3–Basin Street Blues. Wills will always be my hero. First, he had the genius to love blues, country, jazz, Native American and Mexican and German folk music, fiddle breakdowns, pop toons—purt-near everything in the American musical lexicon—and play it all with panache, and to think of adding drums to country music (this would lead to rock and roll). Second, the camaraderie he engendered as the leader of his band is intoxicating—the sound of love of music and friendship and playing for the people and really digging American noise, played with expert chemistry, intuition, and—especially—perfect looseness. Third, his measure for whether the band was any good on any given night was whether people danced. Hell, even I can dance to Bob Wills.

10. James Brown: Star Time. Despite his rather inglorious final years and passing, Butane James aka Mr. Dynamite aka The Hardest Working Man in Show Business aka Soul Brother #1 was no joke. Surviving absolutely harsh poverty and abuse—read about it, and weep (I kid you not)—rising above detention homes and early indifference to music, he not only invented funk, became a vital part of the Civil Rights Movement (he single-handedly saved Boston from being at least partially burned to the ground after MLK was murdered), trained a legion of ground-breaking musicians, put on the most exciting show on earth night after night (check out Live at the Apollo, Volume 1 or II), influenced politicians but left and right, but…a big but…there’d be NO rap without his beats. NONE. Pay your respects, children. This is a cheap four-CD box that will never let you down. I tell no lies when it comes to music.

11. M.I.A: Kala. I simply cannot dream of a point in my future where I will not love this album. Incredible beats, imaginative and disruptive sound effects, a somewhat terrifying and exhilarating view of international upheaval, high comedy, sex appeal—and you can dance and think to it at the same time.

12. The Beatles: Beatles for Sale. This is the Beatles on the brink of artsiness and thus pretentiousness—pre-Rubber Soul, pre-Revolver, pre-Sgt. Pepper’s, the run of albums that provoked John Waters to call the band “those honk(ies)…who ruined rock and roll.” To my ear and mind, it is the Beatles at their very best; John Lennon especially is on his game. The sound and songs range from desperate (“I’m a Loser”) to ecstatic (“Eight Days A Week), from celebratory (“Every Little Thing”) to disconsolate (“I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”)—never artsy or pretentious. Plus, many of the songs are unfamiliar to the youth of America circa 2010.

13. Motorhead: Orgasmatron. At once, a denunciation of war and a musical celebration of its power. Too fast for metal, too heavy for punk, too smart and honest for both genres, Lemmy Kilmister’s hard rock machine has never packed more punch than here.

14. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Rap albums have a short shelf life: what sounded great in 2009 might sound stiff by 2010! The question of which rap album would reward 1,000 playbacks on a deserted island is a tough one, but no one—not even Public Enemy itself—has caught up with the explosive beats and disruptions of this record (at the time, equally popular with black and white listeners), and no single rapper—not even Chuck D himself—has caught up with this MC’s sustained command and invention. For comic relief, there’s Flavor Flav at his sickest.

15. Muddy Waters: Hard Again. As one of the songs here argues, the blues had a baby, and they named it rock and roll. With the amazing Johnny Winters producing and playing flaming slide behind him, the man from whom The Rolling Stones took their name demonstrates authoritatively that age is just a concept, hollering and celebrating manhood as if he’d just turned 21, instead of 63. And NO blues record sounds this great cranked up to 11.

16. Howlin’ Wolf: Howlin’ Wolf/Moanin’ at Midnight. Never was a nickname more appropriate; in fact, one could argue, the nickname isn’t menacing enough to do justice to Chester Burnett’s bone-shattering voice. Combined with Hubert Sumlin’s crazed solos (they gave birth, more or less, to Eric Clapton) and delivering several of the greatest songs in modern blues history, mostly written by Willie Dixon (“The Little Red Rooster,” “Back Door Man”—that’s right, the one The Doors covered—“Goin’ Down Slow,” “Asked Her for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline),” “Killing Floor”)—that voice, once you have heard it, will be impossible to forget.

17. The Ramones Leave Home. 1-2-3-4! The band that stripped rock and roll down to its bare essentials—most of you could learn a Ramones song in a week, even (maybe especially) if you don’t play—was also surprisingly complex in its use of persona and irony, consistently hilarious, and more fun than any American music that doesn’t come from New Orleans.

18. The Coasters: 50 Coastin’ Classics. “Charlie Brown.” “Yakety Yak.” “Along Came Jones.” “Little Egypt.” One by one, the seemingly innocent rhythm and blues hits march out of this collection, usually led by King Curtis’ tenor sax and ace harmonies. Then you notice that some of these hits—“What About Us?” “Run Red Run,” “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” “Shoppin’ for Clothes”—have code laced into their chants. And they do, thanks to two Jews (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, also authors of “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock”) dedicated to scripting parables of civil rights for a group of black singers. That is rock and roll.

19. The Best of The Sir Douglas Quintet. Not everyone can invent style. Then again, not everyone writes songs titled “You Can’t Hide That Redneck (Underneath that Hippie Hair”) or keys a psychedelic Summer of Love ballad to the line, “You just cain’t live in Texas/If you don’t have a lot of soul!” Sir Doug (Doug Sahm) honed his chops in San Antonio and had his mind blown in San Francisco, and the result is Tex-Mex (or, as he called it, conjunto) rock and roll: bluesy guitar, punchy horns with border flavor, one helluva flexible beat, soulful but bent singing—and the addictive polka-styled (!) Vox organ playing of Sahm’s sidekick, Augie Meyers. See also Sahm’s Tex-Mex supergroup, The Texas Tornados.

20. Van Morrison: Moondance. Maybe rock’s most perfect “perfect album.” From the singing to the writing to the playing to the arrangements to the production, it seems to emerge from a euphoric dream of the past, and the worst songs—to my ear, “Moondance” and “Crazy Love”—have become standards. And for all that, it’s still eccentric, thanks to an Irish expatriate who gets stoned on a drink of water, dreams about Ray Charles, and promises a revelation to his lover—if she’ll only turn up her radio, into the mystic.

In case you think I’m an old fart…my Top 50 from the last fourteen years of our lives:

1. Bob Dylan: “Love and Theft”
2. Outkast: Stankonia
3. The Dirtbombs: Ultraglide in Black
4. Todd Snider: East Nashville Skyline
5. D’Angelo: Voodoo
6. Detroit Cobras: Mink, Rabbit, or Rat
7. Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South
8. Lil’ Wayne: Da Drought is Over 3
9. MF Doom and Madlib: Madvillain
10. The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America
11. James Carter: Chasin’ the Gypsy
12. Merle Haggard: If I Could Only Fly
13. The Handsome Family: In the Air
14. The Coup: Party Music
15. Ghostface Killah: Fishscale
16. Shaver: The Earth Rolls On
17. The Best Bootlegs Ever
18. Tom Ze: Jogos de Armar
19. Warren Zevon: The Wind
20. Mr. Lif: Emergency Rations
21. Serengeti: Dennehy
22. Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around
23. Bettye LaVette: I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise
24. Balkan Beat Box
25. Gogol Bordello: Super Taranta!
26. Tinariwen: Imidiwan: Companions
27. The Perceptionists: Black Dialogue
28. Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock and Roll
29. Glasvegas
30. Crunk Hits, Vols. 1 & 2
31. Tom Waits: Orphans
32. Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
33. Elizabeth Cook: Welder
34. Girl Talk: Feed the Animals
35. Jay Reatard: Blood Visions
36. Leonard Cohen: Live in London
37. The Baseball Project: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quail
38. Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information
39. Girls: Album
40. Jean Grae: Jeanius
41. The Roots: How I Got Over
42. Wussy: Attica!
43. Group Doueh: Zayna Jumma
44. Youssou N’Dour: Egypt
45. Martha Redbone Roots Project: The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake
46. Hayes Carll: Trouble in Mind
47. Natural Child: 1971
48. Our New Orleans
49. Tyler Keith and The Preacher’s Kids: Romeo Hood
50. Mariem Hassan: El Aaiun Egdat

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