If you were stranded on a desert island with some sort of music player and only ten handpicked albums to listen to until the end of your days, what ten albums would you choose?
Ahh, the classic question that haunts all discerning music-lovers. When my husband came to me saying that we’d been challenged by a friend to make a desert island music list, I admit I was dreading it somewhat. Ranking things from best to worst has never been my strongsuit. I have far too much trouble weighing and considering and reconsidering and going in circles for much too long.* Then I stopped and thought about my music though, and how I really haven’t just paused and listened to it in a really long time. That’s when I decided that this would be a great opportunity for me to take a break and jam out to my neglected library of excellent tunes. Here are my picks!
*Edit: After much thought and juggling, I was never actually able to rank my picks, so these albums are in no real order.
1. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me (2010)
This is probably my favorite album of all time. Have One On Me is a massive triple-disk album with 18 tracks. 18 may not seem like so many tracks since the typical single-disk album is made up of about 12, but altogether they clock in at over 120 minutes. Each song is a profound, unique story with sensitively written lyrics and beautiful compositions. No matter how many times I listen to it (and trust me, I really have listened to it countless times), this album stands out to me as a masterpiece of music.
2. Björk – Medúlla (2004)
Even though I knew a Björk album would be put on this list, picking only one turned out to be a difficult task (Homogenic and Vespertine both kept vying for the top spot). In the end I chose Medúlla because I believe it is her most musically ambitious and experimental work. The album consists almost entirely of human vocals and a capella arrangements, including beatboxing and throat singing. Some of the voices are sampled, processed and rearranged, sometimes even from her previous albums (like when “Hidden Place” from Vespertine is sampled to create the background of “Desired Constellation”). Although a little weird, Medúlla is never boring, even on repeat listens.
3. Melvins – Stoner Witch (1994)
The Melvins have been around the block and released a few albums (read: twenty-four!), but I think that Stoner Witch is the quintessential Melvins album. It’s slow and sludgy at times but fast and punchy at others, with undercurrents of blues and a wee bit of punk throughout. Stoner Witch is probably the best entry point for new listeners of the the Melvins; if you like what you hear, I suggest you check out (A) Senile Animal next, my second favorite album of theirs.
4. Portishead – Dummy (1994)
A pillar of the trip-hop genre, Dummy is one of the most beautiful and mysterious albums ever. All of the instruments on the album were recorded live, and the scratches, loops, and samples come together to make a hip-hop-inspired experimental sound that is still fresh more than twenty years later. The heart and soul of Portishead though is Beth Gibbons’ vocals. Gibbons has a unique and singular voice that is haunting, soulful, ghostly, delicate and arresting all at once. To this day I still get goosebumps when I listen to her croon and belt. It is incredible to consider that Portishead has only made three albums, of which Dummy was their debut.
5. Nina Simone – I Put A Spell On You (1965)
12 enthralling tracks by an outstanding and highly expressive vocalist, with all the jazz horns, strings, scats and licks you could ever ask for. By now you have probably figured out that I have a major thing for awesome female lead vocalists, and since Nina Simone is downright legendary it’s only natural she’s on my list. The only problem with this album is that it is much too short, clocking in at a brief but sensational 35 minutes total. If I could throw on another ten more tracks I would (especially I Aint Got No, I Got Life), but alas one can only get so much Nina on a desert island, I suppose.
6. Tool – Ænima (1996)
Tool’s lyrics have a reputation for being pretentious, and I don’t think Ænima completley escapes this trap, but upon close inspection Ænima‘s lyrics are really much more mature than you might think. Sure there are tracks called “Stinkfist” and “Hooker with a Penis,” some lines are a little too on-the-nose, and often the metaphors are totally unsubtle. But I think this openness and directness is actually its saving grace. I defintely prefer it to the pseudo-poetic and -spiritual lyrics of Lateralus or the overly-serious lyrics of 10,000 Days. This directness also pairs really well with the dark, gritty, and grungey overall feeling the album has. For me, Ænima is brutal and angry but with moments of beauty and humor that all come together to make a really down to earth masterpiece. My biggest critique is its overabundance of filler tracks. They don’t take anything away from the overall album experience, but on repeat listens they do become skippable.
7. Mr. Bungle – California (1999)
Listening to Mr. Bungle is always an unpredictable adventure, but California is probably the most accessible of those. Its tracks are a little more concise, and have a somewhat more traditional structure. This gives the listener just enough to orient themselves as they rollercoaster through genres, instruments, vocal stylings, and feelings — all in one song! Each track is filled with layer upon layer that become more beautiful with each consecutive listen, putting its replay value through the roof. I am also of the opinion that Mike Patton is a remarkable vocalist capable of just about anything with his voice, and he doesn’t disappoint on California. For first time listeners this album may seem a bit unapproachable or downright weird, but I encourage you to give it your best shot. Mr. Bungle is so creative and talented, and I have so much fun listening to this album!
8. Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
In Blue, each song is like a photograph taken directly from Mitchell’s life, and yet the magic of this album is how her highly personal stories manage to become universal. Her songs are about mundane moments and basic human needs and weaknesses in a way that is so entirely relatable, and I believe that this relatability is a testament to the quality of Mitchell’s writing. On paper alone her lyrics are poetry, but it’s Mitchell’s vocals that elevate them to that place of perfection for me. Her voice is sensitive, tender, and imbues every word with so much feeling, from abounding joy right down to those lonesome blues.
9. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah (2014)
Black Messiah embraces funk, rock, soul, r&b, jazz, and gospel roots together, which gives it a nostalgic vibe, but it still maintains an incredible sense of uniqueness and newness. The way it navigates those genres seemlessly, combining and weaving through them, is really impressive. Sometimes it feels like tightly bound chaos, other times it feels so simple and clean. The fourteen year hiatus following Voodoo did not diminish D’Angelo’s distinct sound, and though it may be obvious I must mention what a relief it was that he did not succumb to the digital processing and autotuning that became so popular in his absence from the music scene. Though bright and romantic at times, Black Messiah is overall a morose album fueled by strong political statements about finding something to hang onto in times of civil and racial unrest. For me, it is the best album of its ilk to come out in a long time.
10. Little Dragon – Nabuma Rubberband (2014)
When I look at my list, I think that perhaps Nabuma Rubberband is the outlier. Little Dragon isn’t the most original band, and this album probably isn’t on anybody’s list of greats. Hell, if I were to make a list of ten greatest albums of all time, I wouldn’t include Nabuma Rubberband either! But this isn’t a greatest of all time list; it’s a desert island list, and therein lies the difference for me. You see, no matter how many times I listen to it I never get sick of Nabuma Rubberband. And although it doesn’t neccesarily break new ground or prove too outstandingly unique, I love its arthouse-r&b-pop sound and Yukimi Nagano’s vocals. I guess in a way, Little Dragon is my form of easy listening.