TODAY MY FRIEND Fred Wilson completed a nine-month blog survey of his 50 favorite albums. With Fred's list finished it seemed like a good idea to launch a survey of my own favorites.
I love making these kinds of lists, but each effort begins with a philosophical quandary. Am I going to make a list of the best albums? That would require a certain kind of objective, historical, value judgment quite distinct from a list of, say, pure favorites--those albums that have some kind of special and peculiar personal resonance. For example, I would never try to make the argument that Bruce Springsteen's best album is The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. But it IS my favorite Bruce Springsteen album.
Another popular way of making these lists is the Desert Island conundrum. But that's a fantasy that invites too much invention. For example, if I were going to be stuck on a desert island by myself for an extended stretch I'd probably want to grab two disks, Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures--because a long time alone would give me a chance, hopefully, to finally decipher the music, and Encounters Erotica--a CD of people having sex, because, well, I'd be alone on a desert island for an extended stretch. Neither disk gets a lot of airplay at home.
In order to sharpen my focus, I've chosen a different philosophical construct--the burning building conundrum: which records would you rescue from a burning building if you had the chance? The burning building question really helped me narrow my field of vision from the universe of the five or six thousand records and CDs I own to those that I really cherish, that I listen to time and again, and without which I would feel my life to be poorer. It also helped me do something that Fred sidestepped--rank the albums. In making a list--a process that is still on-going--I must admit, at some point my hierarchical system broke down. Do I really love Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold As Love more than Sam Cooke's Night Beat? Some days yes, some days no. But it became clear over time that certain disks, where ever the fell among one another, fell in quadrants--my favorite dozen vs. a less favorite dozen. So I consider my hierarchical ranking to be fluid and inexact but meaningful nonetheless.
Unsurprisingly, some of my favorite artists appear more than once, or even more than twice. Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis. But other things surprised me. I never knew how deeply I felt about Sonny Rollins' music until I found myself wondering whether to put a fourth or fifth Sonny title on the list.
Finally, I didn't discount any genre--rock, country, rhythm and blues, jazz, show tunes, opera, baroque, classical, comedy, poetry, it's all fair game--but in most instances I refrained from grabbing box sets. It would be too easy to rush into the burning building, grab the James Brown Star Time box, the Ornette Coleman Atlantic Recordings box, the Miles Davis 60s Quintet Box, the Hank Williams Singles Collection, the Coltrane Classic Quartet Box, the Richard Pryor collection, and just head for the border with that treasure trove. But I did allow myself to grab anthologies of various sorts. The anthologies are unavoidable because a fair amount of my favorite music precedes the LP era by 20 years or more; but I was also willing to grab some post-LP-era anthologies, particularly of pre-Rubber Soul pop music when it was the rare musician who focused on making coherent long players (three exceptions were Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Sonny Rollins).
So, enough foreplay. Choosing the first album I would tear from a burning building turned out to be a no-brainer. The greatest album of pop music ever made, and a record that has been cherished now by three generations of the Chervokas family, Frank Sinatra's Songs For Swingin' Lovers. (I first heard the album in a 1956 box set collection of 7-inch 45s that my old man had. Today the albums tracks are frequently heard in my daughter's room played back from her iPod. And the album makes a universally beloved choice on long family car rides.)
Swingin' Lovers wasn't the first album in Sinatra's comeback on the Capitol label. In fact it was the third album in the 40-year-old singer's mid-1950s comeback, having torched his early career as a war-era sensitive balladeer by losing his voice, publicly throwing over his wife for an obsessive worldwide fling with Ava Gardner, and fighting with record producers over the pablum he was being asked to record at Columbia.
But in 1956 Swingin' Lovers cemented the sound and style of the new Sinatra. Tough, bouncy, finger popping, no longer a crooner but a brilliant story-telling singer who could bob on his toes like a little boy on "You Make Me Feel So Young," or negotiate the complex emotional swings (and modal swings from minor to major) in "We'll Be Together Again." Long before Dylan and The Stones, Sinatra charted the path from teen pop idol to mature musical artist.
Swingin' Lovers was Sinatra's second record with his greatest collaborator, arranger Nelson Riddle, who mixed deft jazzy obbligatos from star talent like Harry Edison with a Ravelian sense of poly-harmony and orchestral color. The Sinatra-Riddle masterpiece is the centerpiece here--a version of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" that it took 22 takes to nail, with a famous bass trombone middle eight, an explosive straight trombone solo by Milt Bernhart ("I left the best stuff I played on the first five takes," he said years later), a spine-tingling pitch bend by Sinatra during the final chorus, and the tastiest little diminuendo to bring it all to a close.
Pop music was never any better. If Songs for Swingin' Lovers was the only record I got out of that burning building, I could live with that.
(P.S. Jackson take note: preferably I'd save not the CD reissue but the early 1980s Japanese vinyl edition which not only has the best sonics of any reissue but also contains an added track, Eubie Blake's "Memories of You," that is available on no other edition)