September 29, 2010

Ten Albums

A list of my top ten favorite albums of all time:

1. Maid in England, Divine – The best collection of Divine’s songs, including previously hard-to-find tracks like “Twistin' the Night Away”, “Little Baby” and rare B-sides like “Show Me Around” and “Give It Up”. My favorite Divine song of all time is here, “Hard Magic”, which perfectly captured the spirit of Divine with its silly jungle-themed beat and growling lyrics. Check out the video for “Hard Magic”, it can be found pretty much anywhere online. Goofy, catchy and a lot of fun.

2. Music Composed And Performed By Goblin: Their Rare Tracks & Outtakes Collection, 1975-1989, Goblin – My favorite compilation from Goblin, the prog-rock, synthesizer masters who became famous thanks to their contributions to the soundtracks for Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Suspiria as well as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Often super-charged and kinetic, but also possessing the ability to be slow, atmospheric and moody, this group epitomizes the nature and energy of horror…from the otherworldly and terrifying soundscapes of Suspiria to the beautiful, thoughtful love theme from the obscure St. Helens (not a horror film, but dramatic nonetheless.) Goblin is, without argument, one of the most influential artists to the world of horror music – no doubt influencing John Carpenter’s simple piano-driven theme to Halloween (listen to Goblin’s title track from Deep Red and compare) to the current crop of synthesized themes in films like Resident Evil and many others. These are all babies born of Goblin!

3. Silk & Soul, Nina Simone - My favorite album by my favorite vocalist for reasons that are inexplicable to me. This is the album that I play most often – perhaps it’s the odd variety of songs chosen (although all of the songs in the Simone archives are from an astonishing range of disparate and unique sources). Historians would consider “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” to be the signature song from this album, but I find her brief tale of simple, matter-of-fact racism explained in “The Turning Point” to be much more devastating, perhaps since it’s told from the point of view of a child. All of the songs are wrenching and even her revisions of Burt Bacharach’s “Look of Love” and The Association’s “Cherish” are re-ignited with a more appropriate longing and yearning that only Simone can express.

4. Creepshow, John Harrison – My favorite horror soundtrack of all time. There is something about the opening piano theme that appealed to me even when I first saw ads for the film on HBO as a child (I was much too scared to watch the entire film, but I would torture myself by at least watching the opening credits). The child-like piano tune with the taunting children voices was spooky, fun and surprisingly catchy. This album was a sort of Holy Grail of mine growing up and I would often watch the film just to hear the music. It wasn't until many years later that I was finally able to get a copy of the record. Each story in the film is brought to life by a signature sound – from the Gothic, piano-pounding revenge motif of “Father’s Day”, the melodic and secretive tone of “The Crate” to the minimal synth soundscape that perfectly applied to E.G. Marshall’s roach phobia and germ-free apartment from the “They’re Creeping Up on You” segment. Each and every note is deliberate, brilliant and visual.

5. Bone Machine, Tom Waits – My favorite Waits album, probably for the simple reason that each song is like a tiny, separate horror tale embodied with an extremely visual style and brought to life by Waits’ rough, often inhuman voice. Each song is painted in charcoal black and tell stories about the hopelessness of...well...everything. “The Earth Died Screaming” is perhaps the most famous track from this album, but my personal favorite is the slow and mysterious “Black Wings” – a familiar tale of a neutral angel (or demon?) and his exploits, both good and bad. “Murder in the Red Barn” is an equally intriguing tale that one can easily visualize and it's peppered with ambiguous lyrics like, “there’s nothing strange about an axe with bloodstains in the barn - there's always some killin' you got to do around the farm.” I like to look at Bone Machine as a sort of audio short story collection of tales that Roald Dahl, Richard Matheson or Robert Bloch might have conjured up.

6. Thighs and Whispers, Bette Midler - A rare album that I actually listen to all the way through. This 1979 album has a diverse range of songs, including a great version of “Millworker” from the Broadway play, “Working”, and some cute disco-fueled tunes like “Married Men” and “My Knight in Black Leather”. Each song has some moment that gives me shivers, or at least slight goose bumps. One of those moments is in the song, “Big Noise from Winnetka” when they sing the line, “Once she was picking up the big boys…now I’m pickin’ up my little kids’ toys”. The whole album makes me feel really good with all of its emotional ups and downs...which, afterall, is basically what makes a perfect album. Right?

7. Cow Fingers & Mosquito Pie, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – My favorite compilation of songs from the incredibly insane catalog of Hawkins. All of the favorites are here – “Alligator Wine”, “Hong Kong”, “Little Demon”, “There’s Something Wrong with You” and, of course, his most famous track – “I Put a Spell On You”. Every song is unleashed in his inimitable way, through screaming, shouting and lip-smacking gibberish. His work makes me scream with laughter. I find that listening to his albums is the perfect remedy to road rage…just “singing” along with Jay is incredibly cathartic and relaxing! Take him along with you on your next commute. Who knew that spouting out silly words and making fart noises would become such a huge part of someone’s career? I’m totally in the wrong profession.

8. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), Eurythmics – Definitely the first official “album” I ever owned. Like most people of my generation, Annie Lennox mesmerized me in the music video for “Sweet Dreams” (which aired on MTV practically every few minutes). I was equally fascinated, terrified and hopelessly drawn to the pounding computerized beat, the throwback classical strings and Annie’s low, monotone delivery contrasting with her higher-pitched, "choir of angels"-type refrains. And who could forget her bizarre appearance? This is the perfect example of the power of the early 1980s music video: The song and accompanying video compelled me to purchase the entire album. I loved every single song on it – a rarity that I have not often found with other albums. With the eerie “Love is a Stranger” and the hypnotic “Jennifer” to the ethereal, jungle beat of “I’ve Got an Angel” and the fun and goofy “Wrap it Up”, I had unknowingly set the stage for my musical tastes. 

9. Hooked on Classics, Louis Clark conducting The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – This was an album I remember being in love with as a young boy when I would play the cassette tape of it over and over again. It was a great entry point for classical music. The often goofy, pseudo-disco element that was added to the medleys of famous classical music provided a fun and punchy rhythm to the proceedings that was perfect for a child. I found a copy of the CD recently and discovered that the album is still a fun listen. The quick, “clapping hands” backbeat now reads very silly and one can envision the album being played during low-impact cardio exercises at a YMCA. Though this album (as well as its sequels and spin-offs) has its vehement detractors, the album has a sweet innocence to it. It’s merely trying to make classical music a bit more accessible while not taking itself too seriously.

10. The Haunted Mansion, Disneyland Records – Though not officially an “album” by any means, this was a record I played quite often. Accompanied by a terrific illustrated book that detailed the exploration of the famous Haunted Mansion of the Disneyland world, your narrator leads you through the famous scenarios from the ride. Though only running approximately 5 minutes or so, the adventure leaves your brain with indelible memories, probably the most startling being the bride with the visible, beating heart. The B-side is what I remember the most from this album – a simple collection of sound effects, from moaning ghosts to the absolutely terrifying and intense sequence of a pack of dogs barking in the distance and getting louder...and ever so closer…